If Penn State wants to keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive, it’ll have to win out — and that starts with beating Michigan State in Happy Valley. Here are the key matchups to Saturday’s game that we think should go a long way in determining the winner:
Josh Moyer: Michigan State running game vs. Penn State front-seven
Let’s break it down to a digestible stat: If Michigan State ends up with 40 running attempts, it’s got a great chance to win this game. If it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t stand a great chance.
Since last season, the Spartans are 12-0 when running the ball 40 times or more. When they don’t? They’re 1-5, including both losses this year. And it sure doesn’t seem like those numbers are a surprise to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
“The formula for success here has been: If you can run it 40 times — I don’t care if you get 120 yards or 130 yards or 140 yards or 240; if you can run it 40 times, you’ve got a pretty good chance to win,” Dantonio said. “That’s been our success.”
The problem is that the Spartans’ rushing attack has been atrocious this year, meriting a national rank of No. 109. And Penn State’s run defense has struggled for long stretches. This isn’t a case of immovable object vs. the unstoppable force — it’s weakness vs. lapses.
But there are some changes here that could make this a bit more challenging for Penn State on Saturday. For one, a lot of Michigan State’s struggles can be attributed to injuries. Not only has starting running back LJ Scott missed three full games due to an ankle injury, but three offensive linemen have also missed time thanks to the injury bug. The difference now: Sparty is a little healthier.
OT Cole Chewins, who played less than 100 snaps this season, should finally see considerable time Saturday. That allows Tyler Higby to move to his usual spot at left guard. And Scott is expected back after going down against Arizona State in Week 2.
That doesn’t mean Michigan State is at 100 percent — two other linemen, David Beedle and Kevin Jarvis, will likely miss Saturday’s game — but it does mean Dantonio’s squad is in slightly better shape than it was two weeks ago. So Penn State’s No. 67 run defense, which is ranked between Indiana and Purdue, will have to step up and force Sparty to pass.
QB Brian Lewerke simply isn’t good enough to carry this team on his shoulders. (Pro Football Focus ranks him as the conference’s eighth-best signal-caller.) The Spartans love to run the ball inside, and Penn State’s interior doesn’t have the depth of past years.
This may not be strength-against-strength. But there’s precedent here: Whoever wins this matchup should end up winning the game.
John McGonigal: Trace McSorley’s legs vs. Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie
In Penn State’s last two meetings with Michigan State, Trace McSorley has managed 15 rushing yards on 17 carries. But if offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has his way on Saturday, No. 9 will be featured in the ground game.
Two weeks ago, McSorley exposed Ohio State’s defense, specifically the Buckeyes’ slower linebackers, rushing for 175 yards. It was McSorley’s first-ever 100-yard rushing game and set a program record for the most rushing yards by a Penn State quarterback.
Through five games, the fifth-year senior has 19 rushes of 10 yards or more; that ranks second in the country among quarterbacks and second-most overall in the Big Ten behind Miles Sanders and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. In fact, McSorley had only 18 runs of 10 yards or more in 13 games last year. So Rahne is taking advantage of his quarterback’s speed and decisiveness more than Joe Moorhead did a year ago.
Meanwhile, Michigan State boasts the nation’s best rush defense, allowing only 33.8 yards per game on the ground. The next-best Big Ten squad is Iowa, which sits fifth nationally and lets up 84.4 rushing yards per game. The difference between Nos. 1 and 5 is pretty remarkable.
Now, Sparty allows 305.2 passing yards per game, which ranks 122nd in the country behind the likes of Old Dominion, Illinois, Florida Atlantic and Rice. Why run it when you can throw it this year against Michigan State?
But Dantonio’s defense features middle linebacker Joe Bachie — Michigan State’s team-named MVP last year and leading tackler in 2018. Penn State head coach James Franklin said Bachie “may be the best linebacker in the league that we have seen,” and the praise is warranted.
That being said, it will be interesting to see how Michigan State deals with McSorley’s legs — and if Bachie is spying the quarterback, how he holds up.