As Bob Shoop prepared for the 2012 season at Vanderbilt, he thought about the challenges facing Penn State.
Shoop grew up watching the Nittany Lions and remembers thinking the NCAA sanctions would set the program back. Two years later, Shoop gained an appreciation for how Penn State survived as the Nittany Lion defensive coordinator.
“That’s the thing that those who are here now are so proud of those who stayed,” Shoop said. “And specifically the guys that I deal with on the defensive side, we talk about it all the time.
“And as we head into their last opportunity to walk through the gates at Beaver Stadium and be on the turf at Beaver Stadium and put the blue and white jersey on — to me, that’s pretty powerful.”
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Penn State (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) will face No. 10 Michigan State (9-2, 6-1) in its regular season finale at Beaver Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The program will honor 17 seniors before the game. The senior class endured a bowl ban that was lifted in September and stayed at Penn State despite having the option to transfer without sitting out a year.
“I think everybody in our program, all the players kind of look up to them, which is typically the case in most programs,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “But I think it’s magnified, obviously, from what they’ve been through.”
The Nittany Lions will be looking to upset a motivated Michigan State team. The Spartans have the chance to reach the 10-win mark for the fourth time in five years.
“I think that’s starting to become a benchmark that we’re trying to achieve here every year,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “So it speaks to not just the success, but it also speaks to continuity in being able to do those types of things.”
Dantonio also sees the mark as a way to stay in the national championship hunt. Michigan State was part of the early conversation surrounding the new College Football Playoff, and they’re currently ranked 10th in the CFP rankings.
The Spartans — who have lost to No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 Ohio State — have largely rolled through its competition.
Michigan State boasts one of the Big Ten’s top offenses, averaging 43.9 points per game and a conference-best 514.5 yards per game. Connor Cook is the league’s leading passer and has thrown for 21 touchdowns and five interceptions, while running back Jeremy Langford is among the league’s most reliable rushers. Langford is fifth in the Big Ten with 1,242 yards rushing to go with 17 touchdowns.
Shoop said Michigan State “will provide as tremendous a challenge as we’ve faced all year.”
Ohio State has near-identical numbers to the Spartans (44.3 ppg, 511.4 ypg), and the Nittany Lions limited the Buckeyes to 31 points in a double overtime loss.
Shoop is confident his defense will be ready, saying stopping MSU will come down to the unit flying to the ball and tackling well more than focusing on the Spartans.
“I think when you get into big games sometimes, coaches try to reinvent the wheel and say in order to beat team Y or team X, we need to do something else,” Shoop said. “And then you become kind of a second-rate version of someone else rather than a first-rate version of who you are.”
The Penn State defense has been among the nation’s best all season.
It has made up for its offensive shortcomings — Penn State ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring (20.6 ppg) — as the Nittany Lions picked up six wins to gain bowl eligibility.
Shoop said that’s something this class of seniors deserves.
The seniors take pride in helping keep the program together. They’ve been through highs and lows in the last 4-5 years. Franklin praised them for their efforts and what they’ve meant to the program and university.
And before they learn their postseason fate, they’ll be honored and they’ll try to leave Beaver Stadium on a high note Saturday.
“I’m just really, really proud of those guys, and I want to send them out the right way,” Franklin said. “I want them to have a great experience. That would be this game, and it would be going forward as well.”