Penn State Football

5 things to watch in the Penn State-Michigan State game

Trace McSorley became Penn State’s all-time leading passer against Michigan State.
Trace McSorley became Penn State’s all-time leading passer against Michigan State.

Following their bye week, the No. 8 Nittany Lions (4-1) host Michigan State (3-2) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in a Big Ten East battle.

Here are five things you should keep an eye on.

Finishing the job

Much of the attention after Penn State’s one-point loss to Ohio State went to Ricky Rahne’s fourth-and-5 call and the Nittany Lions’ questionable fourth-quarter defense. But the offense should have had more than 13 points at halftime.

The Nittany Lions crossed Ohio State’s 40-yard line on four of its first five drives and had only three points to show for it. Penn State punted from the Buckeyes’ 39-yard line on its opening series, reached the 16 and settled for a field goal on the next drive and couldn’t convert a 46-yard try on the following march.

On those first five drives, Penn State tallied 166 yards but couldn’t finish. Fifth-year quarterback Trace McSorley knows that can’t be the case against Michigan State.

“That’s something that we’ve been really good at throughout the first four games of the year and something we need to do better coming out of (the Ohio State game),” McSorley said. “That’s one of the staples of our offense. We need to be able to finish drives with touchdowns, finish in the end zone. That’s definitely something we felt like we — I don’t want to say took a step back on — but we didn’t have the same success against Ohio State.

“We’ve got to be able to get back to finishing drives with touchdowns and not settling for field goals.”

Tricks up their sleeve?

In his Tuesday press conference opening statement, head coach James Franklin spent a considerable amount of time on Michigan State’s propensity to pull off trick plays. And understandably so.

Most college football fans remember the Spartans’ fake field goal for a touchdown to beat Notre Dame in overtime in 2010. But as Franklin pointed out, two seasons ago, Michigan State ran a muddle huddle two-point play against the Fighting Irish. Mark Dantonio called a kicker sweep against Maryland last year and have run punt fakes against Ohio State on more than one occasion.

“We have all these things cut up (on film),” Franklin noted. “We are showing them to our players to get prepared because they have a history of doing these things. They are going to look for these things and take their opportunity when they see them.”

Johnson’s return?

Redshirt freshman Donovan Johnson might return to the field this weekend.

The cornerback — who left Penn State’s Sept. 29 game at Illinois with an apparent arm injury — was spotted practicing on Wednesday. Johnson did not return against the Illini, was seen in a sling after the game and didn’t play against Ohio State.

Johnson capably filled in at nickel corner while John Reid was out earlier this year, not allowing a reception at Pitt and forcing Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett out of the pocket twice with speedy edge blitzes. If he can go, Johnson would be a valuable addition to Brent Pry’s defense.

Dangerous Davis

Michigan State leading receiver Cody White is out with a broken hand, but don’t sleep on Felton Davis III.

Davis III — who is second in the Big Ten East with 23 catches this year — was a menace against the Nittany Lions last season, boasting 12 catches for 181 yards and a touchdown in Michigan State’s 27-24 win.

Davis III hasn’t topped the century mark yet this year, but he is averaging 74.8 receiving yards per game and added a 48-yard double-reverse touchdown last week against Northwestern. Look for Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Warner to get the ball in Davis III’s hands as much as possible.

Holding firm

Penn State is the Big Ten’s third-stingiest defense in third-down conversion rate, allowing a 31.6 percent clip — and a subtle wrinkle is a big reason why.

In third-and-long situations, the Nittany Lions have often times featured a four defensive end look with Shareef Miller, Shaka Toney, Yetur Gross-Matos and Daniel Joseph on the field at the same time. And now that Shane Simmons should see at least 10 to 15 snaps on Saturday in his return to action, he might figure into that equation, too.

With Gross-Matos’ 6-foot-6 frame and athleticism threatening inside and Miller and others pressing the edge, it’s a dangerous front to face. Penn State linebacker Cam Brown has seen it work first-hand.

“I know that the quarterback is going to be getting the ball out in a hurry,” Brown said with a smile Tuesday. “That’s pretty much the plan when you put four d-ends in, to get the speed on the field. And with them, it gives you a confidence boost that you can sit in your coverage, and you won’t be sitting there long.”