Five Things We Learned: Penn State vs. Michigan State

Story posted November 29, 2015 in Sports, CommRadio by Ryan Berti

The rout was on in East Lancing on Saturday as the Michigan State Spartans (11-1, 7-1) romped the Nittany Lions (7-5, 4-4) by a score of 55-16. It was mostly a one-sided affair throughout the contest as Michigan State held the led for the entirety of the game. Thanks to a last minute touchdown pass by Christian Hackenberg in the second quarter, he became Penn State’s all-time leader in touchdown passes as the Lions entered the half down just 20-10. It was not until the second half that Michigan State fully unloaded their fury, as they outscored the squabbling Lions 35-6 to close out the game and send a message to the playoff committee as they took the Big Ten East crown. In the shadow of the biggest margin of defeat in the Franklin era, here is what can be taken away from the Lions’ longest bus ride home of the regular season:

1. PSU learned nothing from Super Bowl XLIX

In one of the most infamous play calls in sports history, the Seattle Seahawks lost Super Bowl XLIX after Russell Wilson threw an interception on the one-yard line to lose to the New England Patriots. The lessons learned: run it in when it’s a sure thing.

While the stakes are not as high, and the outcome has been not as dreadful, the play-calling inside the red zone seems to have plagued the Nittany Lions just as it did the Seahawks, but the numbers can be misleading.

When looking at the numbers on the year, Penn State actually sits ninth in the country in red zone efficiency, scoring at a 93 percent clip. Delving deeper exposes some inflation, as only 55 percent of the time is the outcome a touchdown.

A big deal of this may be due to the fact Penn State has trouble calling plays without an open field. In the squad’s 12 official plays inside the MSU 10-yard line (eight of which were within five yards of the goal), only three total run plays were called.

Barkley reached 1,000 yards on the season this past game, yet the offense still showed reluctance in utilizing him when it matters the most. Doing this more often than not has left the team to swap three points for seven nearly half the time.

2. Change is a good thing

Around noon on Sunday, it was announced that Offensive Coordinator and Tight Ends Coach John Donovan was relieved of his duties with the program.

This was the end result of a season-long hunt for Donovan’s head as the fans demanded change and James Franklin agreed. For the latter half of the season, Franklin has been adamant about changes on the offense, as he got himself involved in the play-calling decisions by suggesting plays in certain situations.

It seemed eminent that Donovan’s tenure under Franklin’s command was coming to an end, but the timing of the decision was surprising to some coming both before the bowl game and after the team’s third-largest yardage total in a single game all season (418).

Regardless, this is a business driven by the end result. Donovan was just one of several coaches from around the nation released on Sunday and a change had to be made after the offense finished the regular season nationally ranked  101st in scoring offense, 108th in total yards per game, and 125th in third down conversion percentage.

3. Can’t hang with the big boys

While Penn State is bowl eligible and holds a winning record on the year, seemingly proving the team’s legitimacy, the caliber of the Lions’ victories are anything but convincing.

Of Penn State’s victories this season, just one has been against a program with a winning record (San Diego State). The combined records of the teams the Lions have beaten sits at a measly 34-49 record, with Indiana being the only conference team without a losing record at an even 6-6.

Meanwhile, a look at the losses on the year for the Nittany Lions will list five teams either currently or once ranked during the 2015 campaign. The average margin of defeat in those contests comes in at 19.6 points.

It appears Penn State is right in the middle of being good or bad and is as close as football teams can come to being vanilla. This program still has some time to go before they can be considered a competitor in college football.

4. No Nassib + No Sickles = No Pressure

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook stood comfortably in the pocket on Saturday as he threw for 248 yards and three scores, leaving the field unscathed against the nation’s leading team in sacks.

According to Coach Mark Dantonio after the game, Cook claimed he “never got touched” and “never got knocked down.” The box score can validate these words, since for the first time all season, Penn State ended the game without recording a single team sack.

Besides lacking a pass rush, the Lions also lacked two of their starting defensive lineman, Garrett Sickels and Bednarik Award finalist Carl Nassib. The latter played sparingly throughout the game due to injury while the former did not even travel with the team to East Lansing.

Without its impact players, the team struggled and surrendered its biggest loss of the season. With time off until the bowl game, both players should have the opportunity to lick their wounds, get back onto the field and get back to making plays for the defense.

5. It’s bowling season

Following the conference championship games next weekend, the selection committee will announce the bowl games and determine where Penn State will travel to spend the postseason.

But until then, let’s speculate.

In the eyes of three different media outlets based on their projections, Penn State has two possible destinations and two possible opponents. Listed below are the projections:



Bowl Name




Dec. 30, 2015

Music City Bowl

Nashville, Tenn.


Campus Insider

Jan. 2, 2016

Tax Slayer Bowl

Jacksonville, Fla.


Tampa Bay Times

Dec. 30, 2015

Music City Bowl

Nashville, Tenn.


Looking at the above options, all appear to carry the feeling of road games for the Nittany Lions. While Penn State fans do travel well, each contest is located in the south with significant proximity to the opponent, including against Tennessee in their home state or visiting Jacksonville where Georgia plays one game each year in their rivalry against the Florida Gators.

Both SEC East squads would head in with win streaks of four games or more, but a match against Georgia would allow Penn State to play against an interim head coach after Mark Richt was let go on Sunday.

Any way you look at it, and whether or not any of these will actually happen, Penn State fans can rejoice in the fact of knowing their team will for certain have one more game to play before the season’s end.


Ryan is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email him at or follow him on twitter: @RBirdman7.