Not only have the Spartans had Penn State’s number in recent years, but they’ve also had it in critical games.
In 2010, Michigan State edged Penn State 28-22 in Beaver Stadium for a share of the Big Ten Championship.
Four years later, the Spartans again traveled to Happy Valley and beat the Nittany Lions by 24 points.
And last season — before heading to Indianapolis, winning the Big Ten Championship and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff — Michigan State embarrassed Penn State 55-16 in East Lansing.
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The battle for the Land Grant Trophy in the regular season’s final game has, of late, become the season-capper for Sparty.
Now, No. 7 Penn State will have its shot at glory.
When they host Michigan State as 13.5-point favorites at Beaver Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, the Nittany Lions have a chance to clinch their first Big Ten East division title: beat the Spartans, benefit from an Ohio State win over Michigan earlier that day, and they’re in.
As the Nittany Lions (9-2, 7-1) vie for a trip to Indianapolis, the Spartans (3-8, 1-7) have been nowhere close to contenders this season.
But even as Penn State has an opportunity to exact vengeance for last year’s blowout, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin isn’t taking Sparty lightly.
“They’re talented, they’re well-coached, and obviously coach (Mark) Dantonio has done a great job there,” Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. “It’s going to be a real challenge for us. We’re going to need this place rocking on Saturday night.”
Welcome back, Mr. Barkley. After being limited to 1.8 yards per carry against Indiana (58 yards on 33 attempts), Saquon Barkley racked up 117 all-purpose yards on 18 touches at Rutgers.
Barkley did leave the game early, but Franklin said afterward that the sophomore was fine and could’ve returned to action.
But the Nittany Lions didn’t need him to. They were blowing the doors off the Scarlet Knights with a potent rushing attack, totaling 339 yards on the ground (6.9 yards per attempt) in a demolition.
Of course, Rutgers entered that matchup with a porous-at-best run defense, but it was an encouraging sight for Penn State fans to see before facing Michigan State.
The Spartans’ rush defense isn’t necessarily feared; Michigan State has allowed 216 rushing yards per game in its past six games, excluding Rutgers.
What’s more is that those six teams — BYU, Northwestern, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State — recorded a combined 253 rushing attempts (42.2 per game).
Michigan State lost all six of those games. Seems like an offensive blueprint for success is there for Barkley and Nittany Lions.
As for the passing game, quarterback Trace McSorley continued distributing the ball around at Rutgers, spreading 17 completions to six targets.
Tight end Mike Gesicki had five catches against the Scarlet Knights, boosting his season total to 42 receptions. He’s tied with wide receiver Chris Godwin for the team-high.
The Spartans rank third in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game (189.9), behind Michigan and Ohio State. Letting up only 11.6 yards per completion, Michigan State’s pass defense will test McSorley’s big-play ability (second nationally with 15.57 yards per completion).
The Nittany Lion defense has showcased its stinginess in recent weeks. Penn State has allowed 225 total rushing yards in its past four games.
Let’s take a quick look at each:
▪ Purdue: 46 yards on 26 carries, 1.8 yards per rush
▪ Iowa: 30 yards on 26 carries, 1.2 yards per rush
▪ Indiana: 110 yards on 41 carries, 2.7 yards per rush
▪ Rutgers: 39 yards on 33 carries, 1.9 yards per rush
That’s pretty dang good.
“When you can make people one-dimensional, that’s going to be important this week,” Franklin said. “That’s going to help you.”
Especially against a Michigan State team that’s gaining confidence in its running game.
The Spartans have tallied 1,146 rushing yards in their past five games, including 207 on the ground in a 17-16 loss to No. 2 Ohio State last weekend.
A major part of Michigan State’s ground game resurgence has been LJ Scott.
The sophomore stud, who averaged only 56 rushing yards per contest in the season’s first six games, has come alive. Scott has hit the century mark four times in Michigan State’s past five games, averaging 119.8 yards per game.
The Nittany Lions are well aware of his ability, too.
“You’ve seen what LJ Scott was able to do last week against one of the top teams in the country,” Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said of the back’s 236 all-purpose yards against Ohio State. “Definitely talented.”
We’ll see how Miles Sanders fares as kick returner. The true freshman running back fumbled and lost the opening kickoff at Rutgers, but later ripped off a 57-yard rush out of the backfield.
It’s a different situation, sure, but maybe that’ll give Sanders some confidence.
Senior wide receiver Gregg Garrity was Penn State’s primary punt returner in New Jersey’s treacherous weather, successfully fielding five fair catches. In expected clear weather, it’ll be interesting to see if Franklin goes with the sure-handed, but conservative Garrity, or more of a playmaker like John Reid.
And in terms of booting the ball, Penn State has stayed consistent. Redshirt junior placekicker Tyler Davis nailed four field goals at Rutgers, moving his season mark to 20 of 22, while freshman punter Blake Gillikin averaged 47.7 yards on three skyrockets.