Penn State limps into Saturday's game against Michigan State with a two-game losing streak, having lost three of its last five. The Lions' flickering hopes of winning the Big Ten East were completely snuffed out by Michigan last Saturday. Now all that remains is a possible berth in a New Year's Day bowl with a victory in East Lansing.
Michigan State orchestrated one of the most improbable upsets of the season so far. A back-up quarterback started his first collegiate game. The offense completed a grand total of eight passes during the game; only one of those occurred in the second half. A shaky placekicker nailed a 41-yard field goal as the game clock expired. Multiple offensive linemen and defensive backs played their first game since October after recovering from injuries. The Spartans had not played with such prowess on defense during this season.
Penn State leads the all-time series 14-13-1. In games since Penn State joined the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions hold an advantage of 13-6. The teams have split their six most recent meetings.
Penn State at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 28 at 3:30 PM ET
TV channel: ESPN
Spread: Michigan State +1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Sacking an Inexperienced Spartan QB or Sack-enberg?
Penn State is tied for first in the country with 44 sacks during the season. However, in games in which the Lions only sacked the opposing quarterback two or fewer times, they lost all three of those contests. When they reached their average of four sacks per game or more, they have won six out of seven games.
Michigan State must find a way to minimize the defensive pressure on its little-used reserve quarterbacks Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry. Both played at Columbus with adequate results. However, they must be protected in order to prevent turnovers. A sack of Terry resulted in a fumble recovered by Ohio State, leading to the Buckeyes' first touchdown. Connor Cook is listed as questionable. Therefore, one or both will have to direct the offense since it appears that Cook cannot play.
In Penn State's four losses, the Lions gave up 4.5 sacks on average and at least 2 per game. When Penn State has won this season, they have only permitted an average of 2.57 sacks per game. Clearly, protecting Christian Hackenberg is essential for Penn State's chances to win.
In its 10 victories, the Spartans have sacked opposing quarterbacks three times per game on average. When the Spartans failed to sack opposing quarterback at least once, they are only 1-1. Taking Hackenberg down or at least forcing him into poor throws will greatly aid the Spartans' struggling secondary.
2. Outlier of a defensive performance?
The Spartans' defense had allowed 364 yards on average in the first 10 games of the season. Ohio State only gained 132 yards. That was 98 fewer than the second lowest total permitted by opponents. The Spartans had not held an offense to such a low number of yards since the last week of October 2013.
All those impressive numbers begs the question: Was this a one-week aberration or a return to defensive dominance that marked the highly successful seasons of 2013 and 2014? Have the veterans in the secondary recovered enough from injuries and the freshmen gained enough experience to suppress Penn State's passing attack?
3. Spartans' Quarterback Situation
What is the true status of Connor Cook's shoulder? Could he play if needed due to injury to O'Connor or struggles by the duo of back-ups? What about the ability of O'Connor and Terry to repeat their acceptable performances of last week? Mark Dantonio does not want to risk further injury to his starter in a game that his team should win even with his inexperienced reserve quarterbacks. If O'Connor and Terry can manage the game as they did in Columbus, that should suffice.
Michigan State has the Big Ten Eastern Division title at its fingertips. The Spartans cannot let the euphoria of last week's upset distract them from this goal. As they have done all season, they will not jump out to an early lead and cruise to a win despite having superior talent and more depth. They will plod through the game, keeping Penn State within 10 points for most of the contest. Penn State will sack the Spartans' signal-callers multiple times. However, the return of some key starters along the offensive line will open up the rushing attack. Returning first-stringers in the secondary will give the men in green the deciding advantage in defending against the pass.
Prediction: Michigan State 23, Penn State 16
-Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.