Video: James Franklin after loss to Michigan State
To enter Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon for pregame warmups, the Michigan State Spartans locked arms and marched, several rows deep, music pounding, past the Penn State players on the field.
Three quarters later, that march turned into a sprint.
The No. 6 Spartans blew open their lead over the Nittany Lions with a 21-point fourth quarter that handed James Franklin a 55-16 loss, the worst of his time at Penn State.
The lopsided score didn’t tell the story.
The fact that we had more total yards than them, that’s kind of mind-boggling. And then have the scoreboard be how it is.
Receiver Chris Godwin
“The fact that we had more total yards than them, that’s kind of mind-boggling,” said receiver Chris Godwin, after the game. “And then have the scoreboard be how it is.”
Godwin was right — the team accumulated 452 yards-gained of offense (and lost 34 on the ground), while Michigan State had 441 yards-gained (the Spartans lost just five on the ground).
The difference was, of course, the 39 points in between the Spartans, who clinched the Big Ten East with the win, and the Nittany Lions, who fell to 7-5 with their third loss in a row.
Twenty-seven of those 39 points came off of four Penn State turnovers.
“Critical errors,” said Franklin, after the game. “You can’t turn the ball over and make critical errors on the road against a top team like that. The turnovers hurt us. Turnovers early, turnovers late. Although we were able to move the ball, those things are going to make it very difficult for you to be successful.”
The first giveaway came when quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw a pick in his first series of the game, as he looked for receiver Geno Lewis in the end zone — but his coverage, corner Arjen Colquhoun, had a better position and his eyes locked on the ball.
“Yeah, I just left it inside a little bit,” said Hackenberg. “Geno couldn’t quite fight back through it, so that was tough.”
Michigan State took nine plays to drive down the field on the following possession, all of which were over four yards. R.J. Shelton shook both Penn State safety Marcus Allen and corner Grant Haley for a 29-touchdown grab to seal the drive, but kicker Michael Geiger missed the extra point.
The next turnover was the error of tight end Kyle Carter. The senior fumbled a 10-yard pass, and it was recovered by Michigan State’s Demetrious Cox, who then returned it 77 yards for another touchdown.
“That’s a tough situation, a tough play,” said Hackenberg, after the game. “We shot ourselves in the foot twice with plays like that.”
The final two were the crushing blows to Penn State’s performance.
After a touchdown was punched in by Michigan State running back L.J. Scott, Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun pressured Hackenberg on the following series, swatting his pass into the waiting arms of Malik McDowell, who returned it 13 yards for the score with 9:56 left in the game.
Returner Koa Farmer muffed the following punt and it was recovered by Jermaine Edmondson within the 10-yard line.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook handed off to his center, Jack Allen, who was lined up as a tailback, and the 296-pound lineman big-boy-rumbled in a 9-yard score, stiff-arming Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda in the process.
It was a statement playcall by scowling Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio, and it sent a message.
“We did not dictate the game to them,” said Franklin. “They were able to dictate the game to us, especially with their offense. And then the turnovers with our offense put the whole team in a difficult position.”
27 Michigan State points were scored off four Penn State turnovers
Penn State tried to stay competitive through the first half, holding the Spartans to six points in the first quarter.
A 25-yard jet sweep carry by Brandon Polk and a 14-yard carry with a defender hanging off the back of his jersey by freshman running back Saquon Barkley got the Nittany Lions to the 1-yard line. Tight end Adam Breneman saw his first look in two years (he’s been rehabbing a knee injury), but Hackenberg’s pass was broken up out of the back of the end zone. Hackenberg went to receiver Chris Godwin next, but the ball fell incomplete and Penn State was held to a field goal.
The Spartans struck again after running back Gerald Holmes went 47 yards down the field on four carries yards and ran through Cabinda’s arms to punch in the 6-yard touchdown, and followed that with the fumble recovery-turned touchdown run off Carter’s mistake.
Penn State managed to answer late in the half with an 8-yard touchdown grab by Godwin, which put Hackenberg in sole ownership of the university’s touchdown pass record with the 47th of his career.
With the Spartans up 20-10 to open the third quarter, wideout Aaron Burbridge pinballed impressively off two Penn State defenders into the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown run.
Then, the Spartans took 7:04 off the clock with a 16-play drive that was capped by a double-fake handoff by quarterback Connor Cook, which he pulled out for a 6-yard touchdown pass to Josiah Price.
We did not dictate the game to them. They were able to dictate the game to us, especially with their offense. And then the turnovers with our offense put the whole team in a difficult position.
Head coach James Franklin
The drive sucked the life out of Penn State’s defense, already gasping behind the loss of defensive ends Carl Nassib (who played just two snaps and has not recovered from an injury suffered three weeks ago), and Garrett Sickels, who did not travel for undisclosed reasons. Backup Torrence Brown played in Nassib’s place while Tarow Barney got his first-ever start at defensive tackle next to Austin Johnson, while starting defensive tackle Anthony Zettel moved outside.
“They’re a pro-style offense with a big, physical offensive line that’s going to line up and try and pound you,” said Franklin. “That’s who they are. And with the size and experience that they have on the offensive line, and with us missing two of our starters, they were able to take advantage of that.
“They were pretty much able to run consistently, and then when they did take shots we weren’t able to get pressure on them.”
Penn State missed the presence of defensive ends Carl Nassib (who played just two snaps and has not recovered from an injury suffered three weeks ago), and Garrett Sickels, who did not travel for undisclosed reasons. Backup Torrence Brown played in Nassib's place while Tarow Barney got his first-ever start at defensive tackle next to Austin Johnson, while starting defensive tackle Anthony Zettel moved outside.
Godwin pulled in another touchdown pass, this time for five yards, to open the fourth quarter, but Penn State failed on the two-point conversion attempt.
Spartans’ running back L.J. Scott punched in a 6-yard touchdown run to push Michigan State’s lead to 41-16 with 11:18 left in the game.
McDowell’s pick-6 followed Scott’s score, and Hackenberg was pulled for backup Trace McSorley with 9:53 left in the game and the Spartans up 48-16 — though the rest of the offense stayed in, as Franklin said he wanted the backup to get reps with the starting unit.
“We did some things, but they capitalized on mistakes and they had a lot of momentum,” said Hackenberg. “It was one of those things where we had to deal with the hand we’ve been dealt...That’s a great football team right there.”