PREVIEW: "Must Win" - Michigan State at Penn State

"Michigan State right now is the best team in the Big Ten. They lost a game to Michigan because they couldn't field the onside kick. What they did to Wisconsin you wouldn't believe could be done. They really gave it away to Ohio State. So I think the two best teams in the conference right now are Michigan State and Purdue." -- Penn State head coach Joe Paterno

NOTABLE: Jeff Smoker three four touchdown passes and eclipsed the 3,000 yard mark for passing yardage in a season in leading MSU to the 31 point rout. Michigan State's last win in Happy Valley came in 1965 when MSU won the National Championship behind quarterback Steve Juday and backs Clinton Jones and Bob Apisa.

(EAST LANSING) - Heading for his third straight losing season, some people believe Penn State's legendary head coach Joe Paterno is in over his head trying to handle the pressures of Big Ten football in spite his 70 plus years of age. Some say Paterno is just being stubborn; that he knows he should leave, but won't do so just to defy his critics.

Some have even suggested Paterno has lost a little "upstairs" and point to this exchange as evidence of it.

"We are trying to focus in on beating the best team in the Big Ten right now, Michigan State," said Paterno. "Michigan State right now is the best team in the Big Ten. They lost a game to Michigan because they couldn't field the onside kick. What they did to Wisconsin you wouldn't believe could be done. They really gave it away to Ohio State. So I think the two best teams in the conference right now are Michigan State and Purdue."

While Spartans fans may love hearing Paterno's praise, it's worth noting that Michigan State is 2-2 over its last four games and Purdue is 1-3 over the same stretch. While Michigan, undefeated in conference play, didn't make JoePa's list.

Still, some of what Paterno says is true. With a good bounce and a play or two against Michigan, the Spartans could have won three of those four games and perhaps be in the Rose Bowl picture. Instead, MSU must win Saturday's contest with the Nittany Lions and then a date in Hawaii against Timmy Chang and the Warriors to become Bowl eligible.

If the Spartans do so, a likely date in the Music City Bowl awaits them in Memphis, TN.

When asked about the job second-year Spartans head coach John L. Smith has done, Paterno replied. "I think John L. Smith has done a really good job and I like him. He is a good guy even though I don't understand those cowboy boots he wears, but other than that he is all right. He climbs mountains, too. In God's name, why does a coach climb mountains? We have enough problems without trying to climb mountains."


While the Nittany Lions have struggled to score points this season, starting quarterback, Zack Mills has continued to carry the flag for the team. Mills has led Penn State in total offense and scoring each of the past three seasons and is on pace to do so in this his senior year.

However, because of a death in his family, Mills has been unavailable for some practices. In his absence, Paterno has turned to freshman Anthony Morelli and redshirt junior backup Chris Ganter, son of associate athletic director Fran Ganter, who at one time was rumored to be in line to take over as MSU's head coach for Nick Saban after his departure to LSU.

Paterno indicated that while Mills will likely start, Morelli will get some playing time. "Mills was not at practice yesterday because his grandmother had died and he was at the funeral yesterday," said Paterno. "Anthony Morelli and Chris Ganter took all of the snaps. We only worked an hour, but both of them did well. I think Morelli is going to play. I haven't made up my mind up of when, but he is going to play. He deserves to play. I think he handled himself well."

The Nittany Lions are coming off their best offensive game of the Big Ten season, a 22-18 win over the Indiana Hoosiers. Mills went 11-of-19 for 169 yards, one touchdown and one interception earning a 113.69 passer rating.

Last week, sophomore Austin Scott got the bulk of the carries and responded with a 14 carry for 74 yard performance. Penn State hopes that they can run the ball effectively against MSU tough front seven, but they know it will be a chore.

"I hope we can keep him healthy this week and he can get a little better feel for some things," Paterno said of Scott. "He is going to be a fine football player. He has to get a little better feel for some things in there and read some things a little bit better. I thought he made big progress last Saturday."

When going to the air, Mills has relied heavily on senior wideout Michael Robinson, a converted quarterback and sophomore tailback Tony Hunt. Mills looks for Robinson first and then will dump it off to Hunt out of the backfield.

The Lions are very content to take the underneath stuff and try to move the chains, playing field position until a scoring opportunity arises. The Spartans will attempt to limit Mills opportunites downfield and give them the underneath routes while wanting to stuff the run. If they can do this, they feel they'll be in good shape for a win.


Despite their huge 49-point outburst against Wisconsin, Penn State has a stout defense that will challenge State's ability to score points. Fortunately for the Spartans, sophomore Drew Stanton will be under center. "I think when they settled on No. 5 (Drew Stanton), [they began playing well]", said Paterno. "Of course he didn't start the game last week the other kid (Damon Dowdell) did, but No. 5 seems to be the guy that they like."

Penn State's defense has held nine of its 10 opponents this season below their offensive averages and have not allowed a team to score over 21 points. The Lions are second in the conference in scoring defense, second in total defense and fifth in the conference in rushing defense. They are led into this game by Big Ten defensive player of the week sophomore linebacker Paul Posluszny

MSU got a breakout performance from freshman running back Jehuu Caulcrick, who rushed for an astounding 146 yards on just 13 carries. Junior Jason Teague chipped in with 112 on just 17 carries.

Look for MSU to mix their offensive play calling in an attempt to stay balanced. Stanton, who came on in relief of starter Damon Dowdell, was able to move the football effectively and engineer 28 unanswered points.

Stanton ranks among the Big Ten leaders in total offense (fourth at 217.1 yards per game), passing efficiency (fourth with 131.0 rating), rushing (eighth at 69.4 ypg.) and passing (ninth at 147.8 ypg.). In Big Ten games, he ranks second in the league in total offense (254.3 ypg.), third in passing efficiency (131.4 rating), sixth in rushing (77.2 ypg.) and seventh in passing (177.2 ypg.).

More importantly than his stats, Stanton brings a presence and executes in such a manner that it elevates his teammates play to a higher level.

Watch for the Spartans to come out and attempt to establish the run behind their outstanding offensive line, led by senior tackle Sean Poole, only the second offensive lineman ever (the late Korey Stringer, Ohio State) to win the award.

Behind the unit, MSU piled up 430 yards rushing against the nations #6 rushing defense, Wisconsin. MSU believes they can run the football on anyone. They'll find out Saturday.


MSU got a great effort on Senior Day in their blowout win over Wisconsin. Similarly, Penn State is holding their own Senior Day on Saturday, so expect the Lions to play with plenty of emotion.

One red flag that hasn't yet yielded its ugly head - and the Spartans hope it doesn't on Saturday - is the team's -7 giveaway/takeaway ratio. If ever there is a reason for concern it is playing a team sky high on emotion while you are committing turnovers. It is a recipe for disaster.

Senior Dave Rayner has been solid if not spectacular kicking the football these last few weeks. Junior Brandon Fields has been inconsistent despite being listed as a finalist for the Ray Guy award. MSU needs to be more solid than Penn State's duo of sophomore punter Jeremy Kapinos and senior placekicker Robbie Gould.


MSU has no margin for error and quarterback Drew Stanton has the team focused on what they must do on the road to be successful; run the football, stop the run and protect the football. Expect a workman like, but unspectacular effort from the Spartans


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