Nittany Lions Win Third Straight, Defeat Michigan State 39-24
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Land Grant Trophy will stay in Happy Valley. Saturday, the Penn State Nittany Lions won their third straight game after starting the season 0-5, defeating the Michigan State Spartans 39-24.
As the final game in Beaver Stadium this season, the Nittany Lions were in danger of going winless at home for the first time since 1918. Ironically, the 1918 season was cut short because of the Spanish Flu pandemic, an outbreak similar to that of COVID-19 in 2020.
A loss seemed more likely than not after the Spartans scored 21 points in the second quarter to go up 21-10 at halftime. All three Michigan State touchdowns came from the arm of freshman quarterback Payton Thorne, who made his first career start in place of junior Rocky Lombardi: an impressive debut for the young player.
But the defense tightened up in the second half, allowing only a field goal in the third quarter and nothing more.
The offense, meanwhile, got to work, posting 21 unanswered points within a five-minute stretch spanning the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth.
In short, the second half was full of complementary football for Penn State, something that head coach James Franklin has taken note of in recent weeks.
“The resiliency that we’ve shown, I’m proud of,” Franklin said. “To find a way to show that kind of heart, belief and brotherhood… It’s not easy to do. The last three weeks, we’ve found ways to win, which is something we’ve done for seven years.”
It was quarterback Will Levis who reclaimed the Nittany Lions’ lead, rushing in a 1-yard score with two seconds remaining in the third quarter to put his team back on top 25-24. But it was Parker Washington and subsequently Jahan Dotson who delivered the dagger.
Washington may have been the most valuable piece for the Nittany Lions on Saturday, posting a stat line of four catches, 95 yards receiving and two touchdowns. His second touchdown, a 49-yard bomb to cap a three-play, 1-minute-14-second drive, was the one that re-established Penn State as the enforcer. Dotson ran a screen route that brought both right-side corners in to cover, leaving Washington wide open. Quarterback Sean Clifford located the ball perfectly, and after shaking a tackle, Washington took it to the end zone for six.
With 35 catches for 473 yards and six touchdowns in 2020, Washington is having a freshman season to remember, even if it’s been a Penn State football season to forget.
“[Parker] has all the intangibles to be a great player,” Dotson said. “Watching him in practice every day, growing as a player—it’s just been so cool to watch, because you were in those shoes once. It’s so cool to watch him make plays alongside me.”
If Washington’s score wasn’t the nail in the coffin for Michigan State’s momentum, then Jahan Dotson’s punt return touchdown surely was.
Fresh off the Spartans’ second straight third-and-out, Dotson returned the ensuing punt 81 yards for what would be the final points of the game. It was the Nittany Lions’ first return touchdown of the season and their first since DeAndre Thompkins did it against Pitt in 2018.
“On that punt return, I had to show my teammates I had a little kick in me,” Dotson said.
His teammates took notice.
“Easiest seven points in the world,” Levis said about Dotson’s return. “When you kind of dominate the special teams because of how uncommon plays like that are, it’s a huge boost and drive for the team.”
Dotson also made an impact in the passing game, posting his fourth game this season of at least eight catches and 100 receiving yards.
The win evens up the all-time series between the Nittany Lions and Spartans at 17-17-1.
In terms of Big Ten play, all that remains for Penn State in 2020 is next Saturday’s Champions Week game against an undetermined opponent from the Big Ten’s West division. As mentioned by Franklin earlier this week, there’s a still of lot uncertainty regarding this final matchup, including opponent, time and location. It’s a strange but fitting end to what has been one of the strangest seasons in college football history.
DJ Bauer is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.