Game Preview: Penn State vs. Michigan State
The Penn State Nittany Lions (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) need to get back into a football state of mind after the short Thanksgiving break, as they travel to East Lansing to take on the fifth-ranked Michigan State Spartans (10-1, 6-1 B1G).
Penn State is coming off a 28- 16 loss to Michigan last week where the Wolverines all but shut down the Nittany Lions rushing attack and sacked Christian Hackenberg four times.
The real story of this game is Michigan State, though. Coming off a last second victory over Ohio State last week and moving into the No. 5 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Spartans have a chance to set a date with an undefeated Iowa team for the Big Ten Conference title. The only thing standing between the Spartans and that title shot is the Nittany Lions.
Michigan State has been going through a roller coaster year, beating Michigan on a botched punt and then losing two weeks later to an unranked Nebraska team but then going into Columbus and taking down the defending national champion Buckeyes on a field goal as time expired.
Two major contributors on either side of the ball have questions surrounding their status for Saturday’s game.
For Penn State, leading the nation in sacks (15.5), tackles for loss (19.5) and forced fumbles (6), defensive end Carl Nassib is questionable to go on Saturday. After playing a couple plays in the first drive against Michigan, Nassib was sidelined with an undisclosed injury. If Nassib can’t go then the Penn State defense will rely heavily on it’s two veterans on the inside, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, who have 8.5 sacks combined.
For Michigan State, the status of the school’s winningest quarterback, Connor Cook, is up in the air. Cook will be a game-day decision. He didn’t go against Ohio State last week while still nursing a shoulder injury that he suffered against Maryland the previous week. Coach Dantonio only attempted 16 passes with the two backups, Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry, in Columbus last Saturday and attributed this to a combination of the weather and the inexperience of the two.
If Cook is to not go for the Spartans then Penn State can expect to see a heavy rushing attack from the committee of running backs for Michigan State. The bruising freshman L.J. Scott leads the way with 577 yards on 107 carries with nine touchdowns on the year. Sophomore Gerald Holmes is another punishing back with 457 yards on 93 rushes and seven touchdowns. Also the best all around back, freshman Madre London, whose carries were limited recently due to an ankle injury may be available Saturday.
If Cook is healthy you can expect to see him throw to his favorite target, and one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous players, senior Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge has been consistently outstanding this year, racking up seven 100 yard-plus games.
One thing that Penn State has successfully started doing this season is pass the ball deep. To have a chance against this Michigan State team, Penn State is going to have to go deep down the middle. Relying on Hackenberg's big-time arm and Chris Godwin’s tenacious ability to go up and get the ball.
Running the ball will be a tougher test for the Nittany Lions. With freshman Saquon Barkley coming off of a game where he had one big run for 65 yards and then was held to only 5 net yards after that, coach Franklin is going to have to find ways to get Barkley open areas to run.
For Penn State to win this game, they are going to have to begin converting in the red zone. In 38 trips, the Nittany Lions have converted 35 of those chances into points but only 20 of which were touchdowns. "When you get (into the red zone), you need to make the most of your opportunities," Hackenberg said. "You don't beat good teams by kicking field goals."
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. in East Lansing and is being aired on ESPN. ComRadio coverage will begin at 2:30 p.m.
Mark Fagnani is a senior majoring in Broadcast Journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org