Game Grades: Michigan State

Story posted November 27, 2016 in CommRadio, Sports by Ellie French

Running 46 plays compared to Penn State’s 26 and outgaining the Nittany Lions 256-125, the Spartans controlled much of the first half. Going into halftime down 12-10, Penn State knew that if it wanted to turn things around, both offense and defense were going to need to step things up in a big way.

The second half proved to be an entirely different ball game. After a touchdown early in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions were presented with the confidence boost they needed. Racking up a total of 35 points in the second half alone, the Nittany Lions turned a 12-10 halftime deficit into a 45-12 victory over Michigan State. Penn State not only picked up their tenth win of the season, but a spot in next week’s Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin.

Here are the final grades for Penn State’s performance against Michigan State:

Quarterback: A+

Trace McSorley played with a lot of confidence in this game and his ability to deliver longer, more downfield passes ended up paying off for the Nittany Lions. McSorely ran the ball much less than normal in this matchup and instead shifted his focus more on executing the pass game that emerged in the second half. He appeared unstoppable in the final two quarters of play as he consistently found players to connect with and threw the ball with accuracy. He displayed one of his best performances of the season, completing 17 passes on 23 attempts, throwing for 376 yards, and picking up four touchdowns. What made McSorley stand out so much in this game was that he not only threw with accuracy, but used his rocket-of-an arm to throw for longer passes that were different from Penn State’s usual short throws for small gains. McSorley turned things around for Penn State’s offense in the second half and his continuous confidence in the pocket week after week has proved to be a significant factor in Penn State’s success this season.

Running Backs: B+

Saquon Barkley was put to the test against a tough Michigan State defense that zeroed in on him quickly. After being shut down for the entirety of the first half and racking up a meager negative seven rush yards, Barkley was able to pick up Penn State’s first touchdown of the game after an impressive over-the-pile leap on third and goal. After suffering an ankle injury late in the third quarter, Andre Robinson took over for the run game. After efficient drives in the third quarter, Robinson picked up a 14-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and advanced Penn State’s lead to 38-12. However, it didn’t stop there. A screen pass to Robinson allowed the sophomore to take it 40 yards to the end zone, sending the score to 45-12 with 3:40 left in the game. Robinson ended the game with 40 yards receiving and 32 of Penn State’s 77 yards rushing. The running backs receive a B+ this week because even though they helped to gain some key yardage for Penn State, receivers and the pass game outshined them in this matchup.

Wide Receivers: A

The pass game is what completely flipped things around for Penn State during the second half. After a slow first half, McSorely facilitated things much better in the second and looked towards Chris Godwin to make catches for the Nittany Lions. Godwin outdid opponents when it came to the receiving side of things, racking up five receptions for a total of 135 yards. He picked up two touchdowns in the second half alone, one for 34 yards and the other for an incredible 59 yards. Juwan Johnson also connected with McSorley for a beautiful 43 yards that put the Nittany Lions in good field position with 4:20 left in the fourth. Although it was difficult to get the pass game going in the first half, wide receivers vital catches during the second half is the reason why Penn State was able to take the lead so quickly and continue to excel for the remainder of the game.

Tight Ends: A-

Mike Gesicki appeared in typical style during this game displaying his dependability and power as a tight end. Although Gesicki had only two receptions in this game, they were both pivotal in Penn State’s victory against the Spartans. Gesicki’s first half catch for 19 yards provided the offense with confidence they needed to boost their spirits during a mediocre first half performance. In the second half, McSorley was able to connect with Gesicki deep towards the end zone in the third quarter as Gesicki sprang for the ball and fell into the end zone, picking up an impressive 45-yard touchdown. Gesicki continued to fight for openings and serve as backup in case receivers fell through. Gesicki did less than usual in this game, but he continues to be a crucial option that Penn State’s offense can continually turn to in times of need.

Offensive Line: A-

Overall Penn State outgained Michigan State in total yards, but the offensive line struggled at creating open pockets for the run game during the first half and made some mistakes that allowed pressure to be put on McSorley. However, the group improved by the time the second half rolled around. Pushing more against Michigan State’s defense and protecting McSorely allowed the quarterback to scan with ease and make key executions that allowed Penn State to rack up points quickly. Due to the offensive line’s ability to stand strong against a tough Michigan State defense and allow the pass game to develop and take charge in the second half, they receive an A- grade for this week.

Defense: A

Two words come to mind in regard to the defense’s performance in this matchup: red zone. Michigan State’s inability to pick up any touchdowns all game and execute in the red zone is owed all to the defense’s focus and determination. The Spartans drove to the red zone in each of their four first-half possessions, but were denied and left to settle with field goals every time. Whenever the offense began to close in on Penn State’s end zone, the defense responded right back. The defense stepped up even more in the second half and began to take control of the line of scrimmage, halting the Spartans ability to execute on third downs. Compared to 256 yards in the first half, Michigan State picked up only 32 yards in the third quarter and 87 in the second half alone, a tremendous effort that is owed largely to the Nittany Lion’s hardworking defense. 

Special Teams: A

The special teams receive a high grade for this week because they did not do anything to hinder the team’s performance. Miles Sanders had some nice returns on kickoffs and was smart when deciding to fair catch or field the ball. The punt coverage team did a much better job this week blocking defenders and securing room for Sanders to run the ball back, helping Penn State to pick up some yards and secure good field position. Overall, special teams did a nice job executing their tasks and stopping Michigan State from finding any easy openings.

Coaching: A

The coaching staff did an excellent job switching things up offensively in the second half and making crucial adjustments that helped Penn State achieve their 45-12 victory. The first half displayed to the coaches that the Spartan’s defense was going to be all over the run game. Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead took this as a sign that if the run game isn't available, why not execute on the pass game? Moorhead’s confidence in McSorley and the receiver’s chemistry proved to be a game changer as more passing plays were called that helped to flip things around in a major way for Penn State’s offense in the second half. Moorhead also impressed by choosing to go for dicier passes that ended up being successful and resulted in key yardage and touchdowns for the Nittany Lions. Head Coach James Franklin also deserves credit for trusting in the team’s ability to emerge more successful in the second half and unlock the talents and skill they’ve been displaying week after week leading up to this crucial matchup. The coaching staff has done a great job on fixing things and making adjustments when needed, something that is going to be critical for next week’s matchup.


Ellie French is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact her, email