It’s the final home game of 2014 and the battle for the Land-Grant Trophy is back! Who has the edge?
Michigan State is averaging 246 rushing yards per game and the Spartans are doing it with a nimble, athletic bunch. It’s also a versatile group. Right guard Connor Kruse has played every position up front and is a handful as he leads the team with 60 pancake blocks. Center Jack Allen will likely find himself on one of the All Big Ten teams at the end of the season. He’s on the Rimington Award watch list. The Spartans have protected as good as any team in the nation and have allowed only nine sacks. Penn State has shown improvement up front and has paved the way for a 100-plus yard rusher in each of the past three games. Miles Dieffenbach played an entire game against Illinois for his most extended action since returning from a major knee injury against Indiana. Protection breakdowns are still happening, however, and the Nittany Lions would be better off if they could get more consistency on inside runs. Advantage: Michigan State
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Christian Hackenberg hasn’t been able to put a lackluster, inconsistent offense on his back and he’s completed 50 percent of his passes just once over the past five games. He’s been beaten around having taken 39 sacks but is still back there slinging it. He’s had to throw off his back foot a lot — there just haven’t been many solid pockets to step up into. When he’s gotten out of the pocket on designed rollouts, he hasn’t had much success either. Meanwhile, Connor Cook is having himself quite a season for the Spartans. He’s thrown 21 touchdowns to just five interceptions and hasn’t been picked off this month. He’s got plenty of arm and isn’t afraid to throw the ball down the field. He’s completed 72 passes of 15 yards or more and 22 of 20 or more. He’s playing the best football of his life right now. Advantage: Michigan State
Jeremy Langford is the total package. The Spartan senior has rushed for 100 yards or more in 15 straight games against Big Ten opponents and he’s shown no signs of slowing down despite handling nearly 58 percent of the team’s rushing duties. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound senior seems to get stronger as games go on, too. Langford is averaging 5.45 yards on 40 fourth-quarter carries and averaged nearly six yards per carry on 68 fourth-quarter opportunities last season. He’s a solid pass blocker and has a nice blend of strength and balance that allows him to bounce off of multiple defenders. Langford has 17 touchdowns while Nick Hill has nine. Penn State will likely lean on Akeel Lynch again as Bill Belton is dealing with a shoulder injury and could be limited. Lynch has big-play ability and is a strong runner who reads blocks well. He needs to be more consistent between the tackles and could be more involved in the passing game, however. Ball security suddenly has become a problem for Penn State backs. After not fumbling in the first nine games, Belton and Lynch have each lost one over the past two. Advantage: Michigan State
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Penn State’s wide receivers and tight ends were virtually invisible against Illinois and have been prone to disappearing acts often this season. Drops, poor route running and communication issues with Hackenberg have plagued this group. Tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James have been used in max-protect looks more than they’ve been sent down the field. Neither DaeSean Hamilton nor Geno Lewis has caught more than five passes since Hamilton hauled in 14 against Michigan. That was also the last time either found the end zone. On the other side, Michigan State’s Tony Lippett has scored more touchdowns (10) than all of Penn State’s receivers and tight ends combined (9). What’s more impressive? Lippett plays both ways and is the team’s primary field cornerback. Tight end Josiah Price is a big target at 6-foot-4, 251 pounds and has used his size well as all five of his scores have come in the red zone. Advantage: Michigan State
Aspiring defensive linemen will want to watch this game with a pen and paper handy. There will be plenty of opportunities to take notes and jot down technique ideas. The Nittany Lions and Spartans each field fierce fronts. Michigan State is led by ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush who have combined for 12 of the team’s Big Ten leading 34 sacks. Meanwhile, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas gobble up ball carriers on the inside and are joined by a rotation that includes Damon Knox and James Kittredge. Penn State hasn’t generated as much pressure as it had earlier in the season and the Nittany Lions have just four sacks in the last three games. Still, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson have played consistently well while ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan continue to be steady. Advantage: Push
Mike Hull has been all over the field and has contributed in every phase of Penn State’s defense. Nyeem Wartman continues to be the unit’s hardest hitter and he’s enjoying a nice season. However, the Lions will likely be without Brandon Bell and that’s a big loss as he excels in red zone coverage and is one of the team’s better blitzers. Jason Cabinda has played solidly in Bell’s absence. Taiwan Jones is Michigan State’s most well-rounded linebacker. He’s got four sacks, has an interception, has recovered a fumble and has broken up two passes. Ed Davis is Michigan State’s strongest blitzer. He’s got six sacks on the season. Advantage: Push
Kurtis Drummond has been a mainstay in the Spartan secondary for years and he’s as solid as ever. He leads Michigan State with 59 tackles — most of them coming in run support where he excels. He’s also pretty good at playing the football in coverage. He’s got four interceptions this season and 12 in his career. R.J. Williamson plays alongside him and has three picks this season. Both Spartan safeties have combined to break up 14 passes. Trae Waynes and Darien Hicks have been solid at the corners. Michigan State ranks 26th in the nation in passing defense. Penn State’s secondary has played well but showed a few lapses late against Illinois. Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams will man the corner spots again while Marcus Allen continues to be a revelation at safety. Adrian Amos has been all over the field while Grant Haley has provided solid depth. Penn State’s surrendered just seven passing touchdowns to Michigan State’s 13. Advantage: Penn State
Michigan State has struggled with its place-kicking. Michael Geiger has made just 12 of 19 kicks and has missed five of his last 10 tries. Punter Mike Sadler has contributed to his team’s strong field position tug-of-war with 14 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. Kevin Cronin has neutralized opposing kick returners nicely with 40 touchbacks so far this season. Save for four blocked tries, Sam Ficken has enjoyed his best season yet for Penn State with 22 field goals made. Penn State has a slight edge in punt returns while both teams are comparable on kickoff returns and kickoff coverage. Penn State’s punt coverage unit has been electric as the Nittany Lions are allowing just over three yards per return. If Christian Campbell can’t play, expect to see more of Troy Apke alongside Grant Haley as the second gunner on punt coverage. The Nittany Lions must hope holder Chris Gulla’s one hiccup will be his last and the wind doesn’t cause any fluky issues like it did against Illinois. Advantage: Penn State
It’s Senior Day at Beaver Stadium and a gritty group of Nittany Lions that has been through plenty in their time here have closed out the last two seasons with inspired performances. It’ll be up to the coaching staff to bring that out, though. Michigan State doesn’t make many costly mistakes and leads the conference in turnover margin, averaging nearly two takeaways per game. It is tough to come away with a win at Beaver Stadium, however, and Penn State should be able to use a strong showing against Ohio State under the lights as motivation. Advantage: Penn State