In a historically even series — 15-15-1 — the last two results between Penn State and Michigan State weren’t even close. The Nittany Lions were thrashed in East Lansing 55-16 two years ago, and the Spartans got theirs to the tune of 45-12 at Beaver Stadium last season.
Penn State, which sits as a nine-point favorite on Saturday, could repeat 2016’s blowout; the Spartans were throttled by Notre Dame 38-18 on Sept. 23. But it could just as easily be a nail-biter for the Nittany Lions, who are 9-5 on the road in this series.
How will this one turn out? A few things to watch may hold the answer:
Coughing it up
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Michigan State can’t do the simplest thing in the game: Hold onto the ball.
The Spartans have fumbled 23 times in eight games this season with 10 of those lost. The only teams that have more fumbles lost in 2017 are Rice, New Mexico, Oregon State and San Jose State.
And it’s not just one poor game that’s plagued Sparty. It’s an ongoing problem.
Michigan State had four fumbles in its loss at Northwestern last weekend with three and four against Indiana and Minnesota, respectively. There’s only one game this season in which the Spartans have fumbled less than twice (17-10 win over Iowa).
It hasn’t burned Michigan State too badly. The Spartans have lost seven fumbles in six wins.
But it might cost them on Saturday. Penn State ranks second among Power 5 teams with 20 takeaways this season.
The turnover battle is always critical; it should be magnified this weekend, though.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke has put together an up-and-down campaign through the air. Recently, the sophomore racked up 445 passing yards against the Wildcats, but he has four performances of 185 yards or less.
Two of those four games were wins over Michigan and Western Michigan, and while Lewerke didn’t lead a potent passing attack, he guided the Spartans with his legs. Lewerke recorded a combined 142 yards and three scores on the ground in wins against Broncos and Wolverines.
On the season, Michigan State’s signal-caller has 343 rushing yards — 40 more than Penn State’s Trace McSorley.
“He’s a pro-style quarterback, but has the ability to beat you with his feet,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “Has made a bunch of big plays there.”
With Ryan Buchholz not expected to play, look for Kevin Givens to take more of a role at defensive end on Saturday.
Givens — who’s listed as a defensive tackle — has been utilized on the edge this season. He made his defensive end debut at Iowa and contributed there against Michigan, too.
Buchholz’s 275-pound presence couldn’t be replicated by 233-pound Shaka Toney last weekend in Columbus, and throwing Givens (287 pounds) in there against Ohio State’s tempo wouldn’t have been much of a help, either.
But the Nittany Lions go up against a traditional Big Ten offense in Michigan State. This is right up Givens’ alley.
“He’s probably one of the strongest guys on the team pound-for-pound,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said of Givens. “To me, it’s his leverage. If I had to compare him to a player, kind of like an Aaron Donald. He just plays with leverage, low, he’s strong, twitchy.
“He comes off the ball, drives people back. He lives in the backfield. He’s always in the backfield, creating new line of scrimmage. That’s why he’s so effective both inside and outside.”
And you thought Ohio State’s coverage was bad ...
Michigan State’s kickoff return defense ranks second-worst in the Big Ten behind Indiana, allowing 24.5 yards per attempt. That figure ranks No. 112 nationally in college football.
Of course, Saquon Barkley can make that number worse. The Heisman Trophy candidate ranks third nationally with 34.4 yards per attempt. He also has two kickoff return touchdowns this season, including one that set the tone early at Ohio State.
Just last week, Northwestern’s Solomon Vault did the same exact thing to Sparty, returning one 97 yards, as well.
All things considered, it’s probably best that Michigan State just kicks away from Barkley.
If the Spartans don’t, Barkley could get his third special teams score of 2017.
Land Grant Trophy
Saturday is a monumental game for Penn State’s College Football Playoff hopes and Michigan State’s Big Ten East division chances.
But it’ll also determine who takes or keeps one of the ugliest trophies in all of sport: the Land Grant Trophy.
The Land Grant Trophy has been awarded to the winner of Penn State-Michigan State since 1993.
Its reason for existence? The trophy “honors Penn State’s and Michigan State’s unique places in history as the two pioneer land-grant institutions in the United States,” according to Penn State’s game notes.
“I think what makes it so beautiful is how unorthodox it is. It’s not your normal trophy. It’s unique, it’s unorthodox. It’s cool,” Franklin said, half-jokingly, about the trophy. “We need to work really hard to make sure that we keep the Land Grant Trophy as much as we possibly can because we take a lot of pride in it. It’s one of the cool things about college football.
“Its beauty comes from its unorthodox and unique qualities.”
As far as things to watch, whichever team wins will carry the Land Grant Trophy off the field with them — and what a sight it’ll be.