Michigan State didn’t do a lot well in last season’s 45-12 loss to Penn State — with one exception.
What was masked in that 33-point drubbing, which secured the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten East division title, was a full-fledged successful effort on the Spartans’ part to stymie Saquon Barkley.
“At all costs, they were going to stop the run,” quarterback Trace McSorley said.
Expect the same approach this go-around.
The Spartans halt the ground game with the best of them. It’s their identity. According to James Franklin, “they’re built on defense.”
Michigan State ranks fourth nationally in rush defense, allowing only 89.8 yards per game. The only teams that sit ahead of the Spartans are Alabama (66.4), Washington (71.6) and TCU (77.3).
In its last four games alone, Michigan State has surrendered 2.97 yards per carry (353 yards on 119 attempts).
Oh, and Sparty hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all year. The closest to hitting the century mark? Not Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, Notre Dame’s Josh Adams, Iowa’s Akrum Wadley or Michigan’s Karan Higdon. It was Western Michigan’s LeVante Bellamy with 67 yards on 12 carries.
In fact, that 100-yard rusher nugget dates back to last season. Barkley and the Nittany Lions know that all too well.
Barkley — who picked up a minor ankle injury while facing the Spartans in 2016 — was kept in-check to the tune of 14 rushing yards on 12 carries. That’s the second-fewest rushing yards Barkley’s ever had in a game at Penn State. The lowest total was one yard on one carry in his freshman debut.
So, really, last year’s game against Michigan State was Barkley’s worst performance of his collegiate career, averaging 1.2 yards per carry.
“They were a little more physical than us up front at times last year,” McSorley said. “We were able to hit them in the passing game and beat them up there. But their linebackers made a ton of good plays in our run game. They pride themselves on stopping the run. It’s their backbone. It’s their nature. That played a part. That’s what they do best.”
As McSorley mentioned, that hard-nosed, run-stopping mentality exposed the Spartans in coverage.
McSorley teed off against Mark Dantonio’s group. The quarterback completed 17 of 23 passes for 376 yards, four touchdowns and zero picks. He racked up nine throws of 19 yards or more, including all four scores (34, 40, 45, 59 yards).
If he didn’t log an MVP performance a week later in Indianapolis, it would be considered McSorley’s best game in a Penn State uniform.
“They had true freshmen at corners and playing with some young guys in the back end,” wide receivers coach Josh Gattis recalled. “They play with a very aggressive style of defense.”
Those corners — Justin Layne and Josh Butler — are a year older now, and the Spartans’ secondary, aided by freshman Josiah Scott, has taken a collective step forward. Michigan State is allowing 193.6 passing yards per game (good for 31st in the country).
But at this point in the season, the Spartans haven’t faced a potent passing attack like Penn State’s. Meanwhile, Michigan State poses the toughest defensive test in the Nittany Lions’ remaining four regular-season games.
McSorley and his pass-catchers might be able to carry Penn State like they did a year ago. But the difference-maker, as always, is Barkley.
After being limited to 44 yards on 21 carries at Ohio State, the Nittany Lions want and need to get their Heisman Trophy candidate going in East Lansing.
“The combination of Saquon’s ability and the offensive line straining and fighting like crazy, Joe (Moorhead) putting us in the right call, that’s why we’ve been so explosive,” Franklin said. “One of the more explosive offenses in the country.”