University Park, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - While disappointed that they can't defend their Big Ten Conference championship, the 10th-ranked Michigan State Spartans will try to put an exclamation point on the regular season when they visit the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday afternoon.
Michigan State enters this final fray with a 9-2 overall mark, which includes a 6-1 league ledger. Unfortunately for coach Mark Dantonio's club, that one conference loss came against East Division nemesis Ohio State on Nov. 8, and it is the Buckeyes who will head to Indianapolis on Dec. 6 to play for the conference crown.
Penn State opened the season at 4-0, but the start of Big Ten play brought the team crashing back to Earth, as four straight losses, and setbacks in five of its seven leagues tests overall has the team sitting at 6-5 entering the regular season finale. A 16-14 loss at Illinois last Saturday snapped a modest two-game win streak for PSU, and you just know that coach James Franklin and his troops would love to pick up that seventh win and head to a bowl game, which they are eligible to participate in after the NCAA ended early the postseason ban it levied against the Lions as part of the punishment stemming from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, with some momentum.
Penn State owns a 14-13-1 lead in the all-time series, but it was Michigan State that prevailed in last year's tussle, 28-22.
Michigan State bounced back from the tough loss to Ohio State by taking down the Big Ten's two newest members, Maryland and Rutgers in back-to-back weeks. The Spartans used a balanced attack to roll up 520 yards of total offense in last Saturday's 45-3 rout of the visiting Scarlet Knights, as the team got solid efforts from RBs Jeremy Langford (16 carries, 126 yards, two TDs) and Nick Hill (12 carries, 59 yards, two TDs), QB Connor Cook (16-of-24, 254 yards, two TDs) and WRs Tony Lippett (five rec., 72 yards, TD) and Keith Mumphery (four rec., 61 yards).
With regard to the MSU defense, it held Rutgers in check throughout the contest, yielding a mere 234 total yards, with only 95 allowed on the ground and 139 through the air. The Spartans proved to be an opportunistic bunch as they came up with three interceptions, one of which was snared by Kurtis Drummond, who now has a team-high four picks on the year and 12 for his career. It was the 10th time in 11 games that MSU has come up with at least three takeaways.
Michigan State has had very little trouble moving the ball and putting points on the board this season. The team is at, or near the top of the Big Ten, and in some instances the nation, in both total offense (514.5 ypg) and scoring offense (43.9 ppg), while also performing exceptionally well when the opposition has the ball. In that regard, the Spartans rank right up there with the best in both total defense (299.0 ypg) and scoring defense (20.8 ppg), and they have been especially tough against the run (102.9 ypg).
Standout performers on both sides of the ball abound, including Langford (1,242 yards, 17 TDs), Hill (596 yards, nine TDs), Cook (.587, 2,720 yards, 21 TDs, five INTs) and Lippett (56 rec., 1,071 yards, 10 TDs), as well Drummond (59 tackles, four INTs), Ed Davis (54 tackles, 6.0 sacks), Taiwan Jones (52 tackles, 11 TFL), R.J. Williamson (46 tackles, three INTs) and Shilique Calhoun (11 TFL, 6.5 sacks).
Dantonio is looking forward to going to Happy Valley to take on the Nittany Lions this week.
"It is a tough place to play. Enjoyable place to play with a good crowd. We will take it there and try to get to win number 10."
Penn State has one of the toughest defenses in the country, but the offense hasn't been able to keep up, particularly since the start of Big Ten play. The Nittany Lions scored early in last week's game at Illinois, but did not manage to put another point on the board until the fourth quarter, as the offense failed to generate much in the way of anything. After a stellar rookie campaign in 2013, Christian Hackenberg has regressed this season as last week's performance certainly shows. Hackenberg completed only eight passes on the day, he attempted just 16, and finished with a meager 93 yards. He did toss a scoring strike to Chris Godwin in the opening frame, but was ineffective from there. About the only bright spot on offense for PSU was the effort turned in by RB Akeel Lynch, who accounted for 137 yards and a score on 28 carries.
As has been the case all season, the Penn State defense clamped down on UI's rushing attack, which produced just 68 yards on 27 attempts (2.5 ypc). The Fighting Illini were also held in check on third down (2-of-16), but they did manage to come away with points on all four of their visits to the red zone, although only one was a touchdown. Mike Hull added a game-high 10 tackles to his league-leading total for the season (121), but the Lions failed to register a takeaway while being credited with a pair of two sacks.
While certainly not pleased with the overall effort of his squad, Franklin put much of the blame for the loss on himself.
We've got some things that we gotta get cleaned up, as a whole, so we'll move on from there." He continued, "Not a good day. I didn't do a good enough job. That's the reality of it."
Hackenberg has thrown for 2,411 yards this season, but is completing just 55.3 percent of his attempts and has almost twice as many interceptions (14) as TD passes (eight). Despite the young signal caller's relative ineffectiveness, DaeSean Hamilton has caught 69 balls for 793 yards and Eugene Lewis 45 for 640 yards. Both have just a single TD catch. Lynch and Bill Belton are each averaging better than four yards per rush attempt, and they've combined for 1,067 yards and nine TDs. PSU has given up a league-worst 39 sacks. By comparison, Michigan State has allowed only nine.
Penn State is scoring just 20.6 ppg, which is less than half a point away from being the worst average in the Big Ten, but it has done exceptionally well in limiting the enemy to only 16.2 ppg. In fact, the Lions have been so dominant that they're giving up a paltry 267.2 total ypg, with their effort against the run (81.7 ypg) ranking them No. 1 in the nation. Hull has been so active this season, that he has more than twice as many tackles as his closest teammate (Nyeem Wartman, 56). Meanwhile, guys like Deion Barnes and Anthony Zettel have done their best to get after the quarterback, and they have combined to log 13 of the team's 29 sacks.