Game Preview: Penn State vs. Michigan State

Story posted December 11, 2020 in Sports, CommRadio by Andrew Field

It’s Penn State and Michigan State week, and you know what that means: the battle for the Land Grant Trophy.

These two teams have split the last four meetings between them in an all-time series that has been back and forth, as Michigan State has a slim 17-16-1 advantage.

Last year, the Nittany Lions won in East Lansing 28-7 in a game that had weather reminiscent of when the two teams met in 2017.

Most will remember the weather delay that lasted over three hours, as Sparty walked it off 27-24 with a Matt Coghlin field goal as the clock hit zero. This was a week after Penn State lost to Ohio State 39-38. Those two losses dashed any hopes the Nittany Lions had at a College Football Playoff spot that year.

The next year, in 2018, it was rinse, dry and repeat—well, not exactly. Penn State lost to both Ohio State and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks again but in a different fashion. Nevertheless, the result was still the same. Different year, same result.

Fast forward to 2020, and Michigan State and Penn State are 2-4 and 2-5, respectively.

For the Spartans, head coach Mel Tucker, who’s in his first season at Michigan State, has seen his team go through the highs and lows. After an early loss to Rutgers, Sparty bounced back to beat Michigan on the road 27-24. A few weeks later, after getting beaten by Iowa and Indiana, the Spartans were able to upset No. 14 Northwestern 29-20, dealing the Wildcats their only loss of the season so far.

The Spartans offense, led by junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi, has not scored more than 30 points in a game this season. The unit is only averaging 17 points per game.

On the season, Lombardi has nine interceptions to just eight touchdown passes, along with just over a 53% completion percentage. Receivers Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed have combined for 47 catches, 746 yards and five touchdowns.

The running game has seen a trio of backs share the carries between Connor Heyward, Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins. Not one back has averaged over 4 yards per carry, and none have a rushing touchdown on the season. In fact, the only two rushing touchdowns MSU has this season are by backup quarterback Payton Thorne and punter Tyler Hunt.

A player to watch out for on the Spartans defense is Shakur Brown, a junior cornerback that is tied for first in the Big Ten in interceptions with five.

It will be interesting to see if Brown is covering Parker Washington, Jahan Dotson or a mixture of the two on Saturday, and it will be even more interesting if Kirk Ciarrocca and Sean Clifford decided to tempt fate and test Brown in the passing game.

Speaking of the Nittany Lions, they return victorious to Happy Valley for the second week in a row.

With turnovers being one of the consistent themes harped over and over again throughout the season, Penn State managed to give the ball away just twice through the last two games. As a result, the Nittany Lions led at halftime in both contests. These were two things that the team had not managed to do previously in the season. Certainly Penn State has shown improvement in the past two weeks.

Brent Pry’s defense has also allowed season lows in point totals of 17 and 7 against Michigan and Rutgers, respectively.

The newly coined “Falcon Package” with backup quarterback Will Levis was on full display last week, with Levis consistently running quarterback draws during his time on the field. Levis did not throw the ball once, as head coach James Franklin alluded to having Levis throw the ball to not make him one-dimensional when he’s in the game.

Levis’ involvement depends on a variety of factors, but if the trend from the past few weeks was any indication, in short yardage and in the red zone, Levis and the “Falcon Package” will see time on the field again.

Penn State has yet to win in Beaver Stadium this year. That is something to note with the team’s two victories coming on the road. However, the momentum from the past two weeks will propel the Nittany Lions to a third-straight win in a close game that could see some twists and turns along the way. After all, this is Penn State, Michigan State and the Land Grant Trophy. Anything goes.

Prediction: Penn State 31, Michigan State 24

 

Andrew Field is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email aaf5329@psu.edu.