When James Franklin considers how Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State team is constructed and watches it execute its craft, he sees glimpses of the future.
The Spartans — a solidly recruited, expertly coached, well-developed bunch — used their experience and relied on their depth to outlast the young, banged up Nittany Lions 34-10 at Beaver Stadium on Sunday.
“We’ve been on sanctions for three years and that’s Michigan State who’s been recruiting and building their program for a long time and done a nice job with it,” Franklin said. “It’s one of the better programs. They have more scholarships than we do. And we’re going to have an opportunity to get that back and work with those things. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to close the gap by developing the players that we have and we’ve got great players and good kids here and we’re going to recruit for the future.”
Looking on the bright side for the Nittany Lions (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten), their immediate future includes another game. Penn State will play in a bowl game for the first time in three years in about a month. But it was hard for players to embrace that silver lining fully after dropping a game on Senior Day.
Especially considering the Nittany Lions had plenty of opportunities, but let them slip away.
After allowing Michigan State return man R.J. Shelton to race 90 yards to the end zone on the opening kickoff, Penn State’s defense came up with two stops to hold the Spartans (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) to field goals on the next two drives. Michael Geiger connected from 36 and 39 yards and Michigan State took a 13-0 lead into the second quarter.
The kickoff return — made easier by Sam Ficken’s unintentional squib kick that provided no hangtime for the coverage team to zero in on Shelton -- was the first one allowed by a Penn State team since 2007.
The Nittany Lions had a chance to score on their first drive after a nine-play sequence ended at Michigan State’s 34 where Ficken missed a 51-yard field goal attempt well short.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted to start a football game,” senior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said.
Penn State players would’ve rather capitalized on prime field position in the second quarter, too.
The Nittany Lions started three straight drives in Michigan State territory but came away with just three points. Penn State was forced to punt after going three-and-out from the Spartans’ 41-yard line but was able to grind out 17 yards from the Michigan State 40 on its next possession to set up a 41-yard field goal from Ficken.
Looking to make it a one-possession game, the Nittany Lions drove to Michigan State’s 23-yard line with less than 30 seconds in the first half. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg fired deep to his right where true freshman receiver Chris Godwin was in one-on-one coverage with cornerback Trae Waynes. Godwin got a hand on the ball but inadvertently tipped it up in the air where Waynes intercepted it to all but end the half.
“I thought (Hackenberg) made a nice throw,” Franklin said. “I thought Godwin made a nice adjustment on the ball and had an chance to make a a big play, a momentum swinging play. ... There’s no doubt that would’ve been a big play to get some momentum for us and it didn’t happen.”
Meanwhile, the Spartans seized the momentum early in the second half.
Penn State gained 26 yards on four plays before Hackenberg was dropped for the second of three sacks by Malik McDowell. A delay of game penalty followed for Penn State and an incomplete throw to Saeed Blacknall brought punter Daniel Pasquariello on.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook responded with two big plays on the ensuing drive. He found Keith Mumphery running through Penn State’s zone defense for 25 yards and hooked up with Macgarrett Kings Jr. for 31 yards to set his team up with first-and-goal. Running back Jeremy Langford took it from there and scored his first of two touchdowns from thre yards out.
Hackenberg was dropped again on Penn State’s next play, losing the football at his team’s 18-yard line in the process. Taiwan Jones recovered and Cook threw over Jordan Lucas to Tony Lipett for a 10-yard touchdown five plays later. It gave Michigan State a 27-3 lead.
Penn State responded with a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a three-yard touchdown run from Akeel Lynch. Hackenberg went 4-for-7 for 50 yards to steer Penn State into scoring position.
“We have a scheme here that we’re starting to believe in more and more each week,” Hackenberg said. “And the coaching staff is starting to believe in each one of us more and more each week and I think it’s just one of those things, it’s going to be a progression.”
Langford added a six-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
Michigan State outgained Penn State 298-233. Mike Hull led Penn State with 13 tackles while Zettel contributed a sack and an interception to set up Penn State’s final first-half drive that ended with Waynes’ end zone interception.
“We were right in the game especially at halftime,” Hull said. “It would’ve helped to get that field goal before half but it is what it is and we’ve just got to keep plugging away and get ready for this bowl game.”