Freiermuth, Nittany Lions Soak Up Road Victory in East Lansing
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Despite their best efforts, the rain gods of Sparta failed to tame the Nittany Lions once more.
In monsoonal conditions on a chilly Saturday afternoon, the No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions (8-0, 4-0) emerged from East Lansing victorious for the first time in 10 years, defeating the host Michigan State Spartans (4-4, 2-2), 28-7. The Land Grant Trophy, held on Michigan State’s campus for the past 10 years (aside from a 2016 visit to Penn State) returns to State College in convincing fashion under difficult circumstances.
“This is a tough place to come and win, especially under these conditions,” head coach James Franklin said, referencing the torrential downpour that started at kickoff at Spartan Stadium.
Gutsy quarterback play by redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and a stout defensive performance guided Penn State from the start. In helping his team jump out to a 21-0 lead by halftime, Clifford relied on a target other than KJ Hamler—sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Snagging three touchdown grabs on the night, Freiermuth moved into a tie for the Penn State career record for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 15. He is now tied with current Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki.
Though the Nittany Lions struggled to run the ball, totaling 113 yards on 37 carries, it was Clifford who ignored porous conditions to turn in arguably his best half of the season. Completing 12 of 17 passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, Clifford set the scene for a dominant victory.
“It’s hard to win week after week, consistently, in this conference, especially on this side of the conference,” Franklin said.
For Michigan State, head coach Mark Dantonio struggled to find consistency at quarterback. Three-year starter Brian Lewerke, who finished with a completion percentage below 50%, failed to finish the day. Dantonio rotated both sophomore Rocky Lombardi and redshirt freshman Theo Day late in the fourth quarter.
None of the trio proved effective against a Nittany Lions defense that ranks among the best in the country. The Spartans totaled just 265 yards of offense, and their inability to take care of the football proved costly. Michigan State committed four turnovers to Penn State’s one.
“Just could never get on track,” Dantonio said about an offense that has scored 17 points over the last three weeks. “We need to do better, have to do better.”
Special teams proved to be a factor as well. Down by 14 in the second quarter, Michigan State attempted a field goal, only for the attempt to be blocked by defensive end Shaka Toney. Punter Blake Gillikin also averaged 44.2 yards on his eight punts, pinning the Spartans deep all game long.
Gillikin’s first punt of the second half was muffed by the Spartans’ Brandon Sowards and recovered by Penn State’s Dan Chisena, setting up Freiermuth for his third and final touchdown of the game.
The defensive unit that dominated the first half struggled at times in the second, due in part to injuries to the secondary. Both senior cornerback John Reid and redshirt freshman cornerback Trent Gordon exited with injuries, as did freshman running back Noah Cain. None of these, per Franklin, are viewed as being long-term injuries.
For a Penn State team that is 8-0 for only the third time in the Big Ten era, a top-25 match-up at undefeated No. 17 Minnesota looms large.
Prior to traveling to Minneapolis on Nov. 9, the Nittany Lions will have their second bye week of the season. With four conference games remaining against the likes of Minnesota and Ohio State, Franklin and his staff couldn’t have asked for better timing on the week off.
“The bye week’s coming at a tremendous time for us,” said Franklin.
Andrew Destin is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.