Coming off a 52-12 loss at home to Ohio State, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker is frustrated, yet knows that the work to rebuild the Spartans is not going to be quick or easy.
"At some point, we will be consistent," Tucker told reporters on Tuesday, "and we will be able to play at a high level and we will be able to beat good teams. I'm looking for that to happen sooner rather than later."
Standing in the way of the 2-4 Spartans are the Penn State Nittany Lions, who sit at 2-5. While the 2020 season has been a tremendous disappointment for Penn State, the Nittany Lions have won their last two games, providing their fans a glimpse of what might have been.
Penn State head coach James Franklin is uncertain of what the remainder of the season holds for the Nittany Lions.
"We're just trying to control the things that we do know right now, which is Michigan State on Saturday," Franklin said. "Then we know that there's going to be a game after that. But to be honest with you, we don't even know that. ... I don't know if everybody thought the season was going to be like this."
Michigan State at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -15.5
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Spartans quarterback Rocky Lombardi was forced from the Ohio State game due to injury. Redshirt freshman Payton Thorne came on in place of Lombardi, completing 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards and an interception, as well as a fumble.
Thorne was the most effective rusher for the Spartans and scored on a 31-yard touchdown run. Michigan State has had challenges developing a consistent running game, relying upon Elijah Collins (2.3 ypc), Connor Heyward (3.2), and Jordon Simmons (3.5) in a committee approach at running back.
The Spartans have some talented wide receivers capable of big plays downfield. Jayden Reed is averaging 12.3 yards per reception, while Jalen Nailor is averaging 20.8 yards per reception. If Michigan State is able to get its downfield passing game established, it may open up opportunities for the Spartans' running game and allow the Spartans to control the clock against Penn State.
When Penn State Has the Ball
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford seems to have regained the starting quarterback position by developing a game manager style that has resulted in fewer mistakes. Clifford had an interception in the Nittany Lions' 23-7 win over Rutgers but also threw a touchdown pass to Parker Washington while also adding a touchdown on the ground himself.
The Nittany Lions have a true committee approach to running the ball, as true freshman running back Keyvone Lee carried the ball 17 times for 95 yards against Rutgers. Devyn Ford also carried 11 times for 65 yards and a touchdown, while backup quarterback Will Levis is also a strong contributor as a runner, adding 17 carries for 65 yards.
At wide receiver, Jahan Dotson has emerged as the most reliable receiver for the Nittany Lions. Dotson is averaging 15.4 yards per reception, and it will bear watching to see how the Spartans, which rank 63 nationally at 232.1 passing yards allowed per game, decide to defend him.
Both teams have had their surprising moments this season, for different reasons. The Spartans were able to pull off some upsets against Michigan and Northwestern, while Penn State lost its first five games of the season.
While Michigan State has shown an ability to rise up and pull off the upset, the Nittany Lions seem to have turned the corner in a positive direction. Look for Penn State to make it three in a row as they try to close out this difficult 2020 season on a winning note.
Prediction: Penn State 28, Michigan State 17
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions