WHERE: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI 12:00 EST kickoff.
ALL TIME: Michigan State leads series 10-9-1 but Penn State is 3-2 all time at Spartan Stadium.
Penn State trounced Michigan State 61-7 in last season's finale.
AT STAKE: Land Grant Trophy
(EAST LANSING) - Wouldn't you know it? Michigan State is hosting Penn State at a time when the Nittany Lions are playing their best football and the Spartans are playing their worst.
MSU is in the midst of a three-game losing streak including a terrible 56-21 whipping at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers, their worst loss of the season.
Adding to the Spartans woes, Wisconsin unveiled a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that flooded the previously uncovered passing zones with defenders and befuddled Spartan quarterback Jeff Smoker. The scheme caught the Spartans coaching staff off-guard and threatens to loom large in the future as opposing teams see what Wisconsin did and how it affected the Spartans.
Still worse, MSU has been beset with injuries to key players. Offensive tackle Stefon Wheeler, who had been a rock, is lost for the finale and likely any bowl appearance after suffering short-term paralysis in the loss to Ohio State. The Spartans have struggled to find a decent replacement for Wheeler. The result, Smoker was sacked three times and hurried throughout the Wisconsin contest.
Safety Eric Smith, who had emerged as MSU's leader in the secondary and their best player in that area was lost for the season with a knee injury on the third to last play of practice just prior to the Wisconsin game.
Defensive tackle Greg Yeaster, MSU's best run stopper is also lost for the season. Wisconsin took advantage of MSU's weakness when Lee Evans caught five touchdown passes on the depleted MSU secondary while Dwayne Smith rushed for 207 yards and two touchdowns.
But Penn State legendary head coach Joe Paterno says he's just looking for progress in the season finale, not necessarily a win.
"I think you have to be careful that you don't get carried away with one game or two games. Sure we would love to win it and come out of the season with a couple of games under our belt where we won," said Paterno.
"Michigan State is a good football team. They are on the other extreme right now. They are fighting to prove to people how good they are and they are good. I just hope we play well. If we play better this week than we have played earlier, then that is momentum. Whether we win or lose, a win isn't that important to us right now. I would love to win it, obviously. I would love these kids to go out with a couple of wins under their belt. I think that as far as how it carries over into next year we have to make sure that we are playing better," Paterno said.
For Michigan State head coach John L. Smith, who admitted that some players on the MSU squad "surrendered" or quit in the Wisconsin defeat, this game is a referendum on what his program will be like. Smith needs to send a message to those who waive the white flag instead of fighting until the end will not be tolerated. If necessary, leaving some players at home during the bowl season and/or benching them might be the appropriate way to handle the situation.
A win would make MSU's first season under Smith much sweeter than the sour taste that would last much of the off-season, knowing that the team lost four straight including one to a 3-8 Penn State team coming into this game.
While all the "must-win" game for this season have come and gone, over the long term this one may send a message to fans and players alike regarding what John L. Smith's program is all about.