Penn State Football

Penn State readies for potential ‘spoiler’ at No. 6 Michigan State

Penn State football coach James Franklin yells to his players during the Saturday, November 21, 2015 football game at Beaver Stadium. Michigan won, 28-16.
Penn State football coach James Franklin yells to his players during the Saturday, November 21, 2015 football game at Beaver Stadium. Michigan won, 28-16. CDT photo

Penn State football has a big opportunity ahead.

The team faces No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday afternoon in East Lansing, but it’s not just the rank of the opponent that has beefed up the meaning of this game.

For the Nittany Lions themselves, pride is on the line. But for the rest of the division, what Penn State does on Saturday could mightily shift which team faces No. 3 Iowa in the Big Ten Football Championship Game on Dec. 5.

If Penn State beats the Spartans on Saturday, the winner of the matchup between No. 8 Ohio State and No. 12 Michigan goes to the title game. If Penn State loses, the Spartans seal the East.

And that in turn could shift the landscape of the College Football Playoff itself.

If Penn State beats the Spartans on Saturday, the winner of the matchup between No. 8 Ohio State and No. 12 Michigan goes to the title game. If Penn State loses, the Spartans seal the East.

So, does the idea of playing “spoiler” appeal at all to head coach James Franklin? Does this game hold any more meaning for Penn State, from his perspective?

Yes, but not so much to ruin Sparty’s party as to send his guys out on a high note — especially after a road loss to Northwestern followed by a loss to Michigan on Senior Day.

“We’re playing for a lot on Saturday,” he said. “We’ve got a chance to win eight games in the regular season. We’ve got a chance to go into a bowl with momentum.

“Trust me, we’re playing for a lot. We played for a lot (last) Saturday. A lot of people live and die Penn State football, and it’s very, very important to them, so trust me, my staff and our players feel like we’re playing for a lot on Saturday and feel like that every single Saturday.”

3 keys to see

Offense

Michigan State’s defense will test Penn State’s offense just as much, if not more, than Michigan did the week before.

The Spartans haven’t thrown many wrinkles into their solid defensive scheme in the past few years, and that likely won’t change before Saturday.

“They’re big and physical and long on the defensive line,” Franklin said. “(They are all) playmakers, guys that have been making plays there for multiple years.”

Shilique Calhoun is one of those playmakers. He’s among the national and conference sack leaders, and lends his talents not only to the pass rush, but to the Spartans’ No. 15-ranked rush defense.

Trust me, we’re playing for a lot. We played for a lot (last) Saturday. A lot of people live and die Penn State football, and it’s very, very important to them, so trust me, my staff and our players feel like we’re playing for a lot on Saturday and feel like that every single Saturday.

Penn State head coach James Franklin

“They’re going to be very involved in the run game,” said Franklin. “Their philosophy is that they’re going to get to you before you can get the ball out, and that philosophy has worked very well for them in the last couple of years.”

It’s likely, then, that a major factor in deciding the contest will be the resiliency of freshman Saquon Barkley. He’s capable of the explosive plays, yes, but if he can play more of a ground-and-pound game and wear down Michigan State’s line (just as Indiana did against Michigan two weeks ago), the Nittany Lions may find some workable room to put up points.

Based on weeks past, it’s safe to assume the physicality of the Spartans’ pass rush and defensive line will get a ton of push on Penn State’s offensive line. The Nittany Lions’ line has given up 36 sacks this season, and was shoved backward time and again by Michigan’s front last week.

Then, navigating through the second and third tiers of Michigan State’s defense will be difficult for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

“At linebacker, they’re very, very productive and in the secondary they are athletic and long as well,” said Franklin. “It’s like their whole defense is 6 feet or taller, and they challenge you. They challenge every route, every yard. They’re going to be in your face with press coverage on the perimeter ... and then they’re going to use their safeties.”

Defense

Penn State is playing a little banged up — more so than Franklin said he’s ever seen them — and were without starting safety Jordan Lucas (who is out for the rest of the year) and starting defensive end Carl Nassib ( who is leading the nation in sacks).

But they do have a bit more stability than they’ve seen in weeks on the linebacker unit, as strong-side ’backer Brandon Bell appeared to be in full health after an interception, sack-and-strip and fumble recovery against Michigan last week.

The Spartans also were briefly on injury watch, as starting quarterback Connor Cook suffered a shoulder injury against Maryland two games ago and sat out as the Spartans toppled Ohio State the following week.

Franklin said after practice Wednesday that he expected Cook to be in as his team tries to clinch the East.

If so, Cook is a formidable threat and similar in style to Hackenberg. However, the Spartans allow just 1.36 sacks per game and often display a comfortable, movable pocket, thus giving their quarterback the time needed to be effective in the air.

“I’m looking at Michigan State’s offensive line this week, I think they’re 295, 325, 325, 315 and 325 (pounds apiece),” said Franklin. “They’re massive human beings, and we’re still kind of working toward that.”

The Spartans have also split run duties fairly evenly between three backs. Freshman LJ Scott has rushed for 577 yards and nine touchdowns on 107 carries, while sophomore Gerald Holmes has 457 yards on 98 carries with seven touchdowns and freshman Madre London has 409 yards on 101 carries (but just three rushing scores).

Tight end Paul Lang has been a key element in the ground attack as well. He is similar to Michigan’s Jake Butt in his ability to execute blocks to open up the run, plus he can line up like a wideout and pull down chunk-yardage passes.

Special Teams

Penn State has not shown consistency in special teams from week to week this season.

While special teams captain Von Walker last week blocked the team’s first punt since 2012, a 55-yard run was broken open by Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis shortly after, which led to a touchdown.

(In) kickoff coverage, we’ve been inconsistent,” Franklin said. “Those things are going to create stress on everybody ... We’re putting too much stress on our offense, defense and other guys on the coverage units with our kick locations, our hang time and our distance.”

Meanwhile, Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger, who had been fairly inconsistent all season, booted a 41-yard field goal to push the Spartans over the Buckeyes last week.

He’s likely feeling confident heading into the weekend — at least that can be assumed based on his thoughts on the kick, given to a Spartans radio correspondent after the win, which quickly went viral:

“I (expletive) drilled it.”  

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue

 

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