Penn State will look to bounce back on Homecoming weekend against a banged-up, yet always dangerous, Michigan State squad.
(8)Penn State (4-1, 1-1) vs. Michigan State (3-2, 1-1)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
The Betting Line: Penn State -13.5
TV: BTN- Kevin Kugler (play-by-play), James Laurinaitis (analyst), Lisa Byington (sideline)
Weather: Overcast and cool, with a high of 51 and temps dropping into the 40s later in the day. There is a chance of showers in the morning, but should clear up well in time for kickoff.
PENN STATE RECORD: 40-18, 5th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 64-33, 7th Year
VS. MICHIGAN STATE: 1-3
MICHIGAN STATE RECORD: 103-47, 12th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 121-64, 15th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 5-4
NOW THE FUN PART….
MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Spartans Quarterback Brian Lewerke had his breakout performance against Penn State in 2017, tossing for 400 yards and two touchdowns to help sink the Nittany Lions’ playoff hopes. However, he has yet to establish himself as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in 2018 as many expected. While his completion percentage has improved from 59 to 64.2 percent, he has had issues turning the ball over with six interceptions to just six touchdown passes (Lewerke had 20 touchdowns to seven interceptions all of 2017).
It hasn’t helped Lewerke that so much of his supporting cast has been hampered by the injury bug. LJ Scott, perhaps the Big Ten’s most bruising running back, has been out since week two and will be a game-time decision on Saturday. They will also be without Cody White, the team’s second-leading receiver, who is recovering from a broken hand. Freshman receiver Jalen Nailor has also been out since week three with an undisclosed injury.
However, the injuries at the skill positions pale in comparison to the offensive line where the Spartans have been forced to rely on several inexperienced players due to a lack of healthy bodies (something Penn State fans can certainly relate to in recent years). The biggest loss is starting left guard David Beedle. The senior returned from injury against Northwestern, only to suffer an arm injury that will sideline him for at least a month. Starting right guard Kevin Jarvis will also be out, and both starting tackles will play limited snaps as they also recover from injuries.
The impact of the injuries to Scott and the offensive line is easily noticed with the Spartans run game. Sophomore Connor Heyward and freshman La’Darius Jefferson have filled in for Scott, with very limited success. Against Northwestern last week, Heyward had 12 yards on five carries, while Jefferson contributed 15 yards of six carries. The Spartans are averaging just 123 yards rushing per game, and that paltry sum has been boosted by some major gains by wide receivers on reverses and sweeps.
At least Michigan State still has the services of Felton Davis III, one of the Big Ten’s biggest playmakers. Davis has been the only constant for the Spartans offense, and single-handedly kept the Northwestern game close with with 146 yards from the line of scrimmage with two scores. He’s the type of player that you can throw it up to when nothing is working and hope for the best.
Penn State’s defense grew up fast against the Buckeyes in week five. Despite a late collapse, the young defense exceeded even the wildest expectations before running out of gas. It will be interesting to see how they build off that performance as they face a more one-dimensional and less explosive attack. Lewerke had no trouble finding holes in Penn State’s defense a year ago, and always found ways to keep the chains moving and keep Trace McSorley and co. on the sidelines last year. He will need another big game, but has already proven he’s capable of doing so.
Penn State defensive end Shane Simmons will be making his much-anticipated return to the field after an injury sidelined him for the first five games. Simmons is an incredibly quick edge rusher who will help an already-talented group of defensive ends. Keep an eye out for C.J. Thorpe, a very large and aggressive guard-turned-defensive tackle who will be making just his second appearance on defense.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE
Let’s start off with the bad news for the Penn State offense- they will be facing the nation’s top run defense on Saturday. The Spartans are allowing just 33.8 yards per game on the ground, and a measly 1.32 yards per attempt. Considering how the Buckeyes were able to slow the Nittany Lion rushing attack, it’s no stretch to imagine the Spartans can do the same on Saturday.
The silver lining? While Michigan State’s defense is stout against the run, they have also allowed opponents to pass at will throughout the season. The former ‘No Fly Zone’ secondary is just a distant memory, as the Spartans are giving up 305.2 yards per game- ranking 122 of 129 FBS teams. As long as Penn State’s receiving corps can limit dropped passes, Trace McSorley should be in for a huge day.
A name you will hear plenty on Saturday is inside linebacker Joe Bachie. The junior is a preseason All-American and is on the watch list for about every major defensive award, as well as the 2017 team MVP. He seemingly is in on the action on every play, and leads the team with 39 tackles. He also has 2.5 TFLs, a sack and an interception on the season. Defensive end Kenny Willekes will also work to blow up plays in Penn State’s backfield, and already has eight TFLs and four sacks through five games. Linebacker Andrew Dowell is also dangerous, registering four TFLs and two sacks thus far, and provides regular pressure off the edge on passing downs.
Penn State will likely try to get the run game back on track, despite the Spartans eye-popping statistics. Either way, McSorley will be ready to take over. Fortunately, K.J. Hamler is set to return after an early exit from the Ohio State game after taking a blow to the head. Pat Freiermuth is now the full time starting tight end, and has shown to be a star-in-the-making as a true freshman.
The Spartans have a very reliable kicker in sophomore Matt Coghlin, who has connected on all eight field goal and 14 extra point attempts. His long for the season is 49 yards, besting his two 46-yarders from a year ago. However, they will be without Jake Hartbarger, a four-year starter and one of the top punters in the nation. Hartbarger suffered a leg injury in week two at Arizona State, and is not expected to return for another month. Tyler Hunt has been starting in his place, averaging 38.8 yards per punt with a long of 63.
Michigan State has not demonstrated much explosiveness in the return game yet. Receiver Brandon Sowards has filled in for the injured Cody White at punt returner, and is averaging 11 yards per return with a long of 24. Running back Connor Heyward serves as kick returner, averaging 24.3 yards per return with a long of 36. The Spartans do not have a return touchdown this season.
Penn State-42 , Michigan State-20
When I consider how these teams stack up against one another, I’m very confident in Penn State being able to take care of business with a thorough victory over the Spartans. Add that a hungry and motivated Nittany Lions squad is coming off a well-timed bye week, it should be no problem for Penn State to have a happy Homecoming afternoon with another win.
However, the opponent still gives me some pause. Mark Dantonio is a darn good coach, and the Spartans have a history of playing up to the level of its opponents against the better teams on its schedule.
I think this game will play out similarly to the last time the Spartans visited Happy Valley in 2016. Penn State’s offense may need some time to settle against a Spartans defense with a very talented front seven, while Lewerke will be able to find enough holes in the defense to keep the ball moving and get a couple early scores. But once Penn State gets things figured out and adjust accordingly, they will roll to a victory with the help of a big second half.
Trace McSorley passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns to four different receivers as he becomes the all-time leading passer in program history. Juwan Johnson breaks out of his slump with a 100-yard receiving effort and a score, while Mac Hippenhammer has the best day of his young career with 75 yards and a touchdown.
Penn State’s defensive line takes advantage of a beaten up Spartans offensive line, finishing with six sacks as Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney contribute two apiece. Kevin Givens also has a big day with 2.5 TFLs and a fumble recovery.