Blitz the Spartans with Penn State

The Blitz was one of the most popular features at the old PSU Playbook, the grass-roots site which was a big part of the entities that united to create FightOnState.com back in 2004. Though the name of the site changed, we kept right on blitzing.

Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's battle against the Michigan State Spartans.

The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.

Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
KICKING OFF

MH: It was another ugly affair for Penn State, this time against Illinois. Now the Lions set their sights on closing out 2014 against a strong Spartan squad. It should be an interesting Senior Day.

ND: The Lions return to Beaver Stadium to celebrate and thank the seniors that stuck with the program and the University during the darkest hour. Though Michigan State is out of the picture for the college playoff, they are looking to finish strong to secure a strong bowl appearance.
DIRTY DETAILS

Who: No. 10 Michigan State vs. Penn State

When: Saturday, November 29nd at 3:30 pm ET, 12:30 pm PT

Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA

Series: Penn State leads 14-13-1

TV: Split ABC/ESPN2

Line: Michigan State favored by 13.5 points
PSU PLAYBOOK

MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their road clash against Michigan State.

RUNNING MAN: The good news is that Akeel Lynch had another solid outing (minus a costly fumble) with 137 yards on 28 carries and a touchdown, plus two receptions for 25 yards. Penn State has managed to find some semblance of a consistent running game in the last two contests albeit against weaker defensive fronts. It will be interesting to see if they can mount a ground assault against Michigan State’s No. 8 rush defense, which has given up only 102.9 yards per game.

GROUNDED: QB Christian Hackenberg continues to struggle mightily for PSU. He’s No. 9 in pass efficiency in the Big Ten with 14 interceptions to only eight touchdowns this season. Call is a sophomore slump, but his inconsistency has been a major challenge for the offense to overcome. MSU will provide a challenge with its No. 25 pass defense, allowing 194 yards per game. Hackenberg’s is having issues with his progression, delivery and mental clock, all of which are tough to resolve in a single game.

STUCK IN FIRST: Penn State’s defensive front still boasts the No. 1 spot national in rush defense, allowing only 81.7 YPG. However Anthony Zettel and company face a tough, physical running back in Jeremy Langford who explodes to holes and runs over defenders. Penn State has to wrap-up on their tackles and bring him down – the old “battering ram” technique will not work with Langford.

KICK ME: Despite it’s strong start, PSU’s kicking game has had issues as of late with blocked and bumbled field goals. What was a solid scoring weapon for PSU now has some concerns associated with it. I don’t expect they staff to back off from Sam Ficken and his crew, but with every point being critical for the Lions the kicking game has to buckle down against the Spartans.

NO PASSING ZONE: While the PSU secondary has had bright spots with the play of Marcus Allen and Jordan Lucas, the unit has major struggles, particularly at the end of the Illinois loss, all but collapsing to allow the Illini to march down the field. The defensive backs have to play tight and aggressive and shore up the huge gaps, particularly across the middle of the field in order to snuff out MSU drives.
SPARTY PARTY

ND: In this section, I will review this week’s opponent, the Michigan State Spartans.

COOKING WITH GAS: QB Connor Cook has quietly built a fantastic season as the signal caller for the Spartans. He leads the conference in passing yards and his 21 TDs against 5 INTs is very impressive. He has the arm strength to make every throw on the field and he has just enough mobility to get out of the way of a pass rush. Though J.T. Barrett of Ohio State might be the best QB in the conference, Connor Cook is by far the best passer in the conference.

BACKING IT UP: Senior Jeremy Langford has followed up his 1422 yard rushing performance in 2013 with another 1000+ yard performance. There are so many good backs in the conference that Langford doesn’t get as much publicity but he should. He is a strong, physical back that has been very reliable for the Spartans for the past 2 seasons. He isn’t the long-ball threat that Melvin Gordon is but he will tire a defense out with his physicality. The Lions will not be able to arm tackle Langford.

FLIP IT TO: Tony Lippett is the star receiver on this team. He is my leading candidate for the best WR in the conference award. He is a long, lanky and deceivingly fast WR that he has really focused on his craft and has turned into a sure-handed WR that is not shy to run a route anywhere on the field. He will require safety help wherever he goes on the field.

END OF THE ROAD: DE Shilique Calhoun expected another monster season to follow-up his sophomore performance. That hasn’t come but that is due in large part to the fact that he has faced double teams all season long. He impacts the game because of the blocks he consumes. He has a very athletic defensive end that will likely forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft. His ability to come off of the edge will be a huge problem for both Andrew Nelson and Donovan Smith. Look for the Lions to keep a TE over Calhoun to help with the blocking.

THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN: Though Michigan State lost key parts of their vaunted secondary, dubbed the No Fly Zone, Kurtis Drummond returned. He has picked off 4 passes and has 9 pass breakups to go with his 13 passes defended. Drummond is the best safety in the conference and is the best secondary in the conference along with Trae Waynes (Thorpe Semifinalist), Darian Hicks, and R.J. Williamson.

BLAZING SADDLES: Mike Sadler is an excellent punter for the Spartans. He’s averaging 41.3 yards per punt, which is pretty good. However, Michigan State is 102nd in the nation in Net Punting with an average of 35.24 yards. There may be some opportunities for Jesse Della Valle to have an impact in the return game when he doesn’t fair catch the ball.
KEYS TO THE GAME

MH: The key to this game is Hackenberg. The staff has to finally get him some routes he can hit with some consistency, namely TE slants and WR curls. Help him get quick, short passes out to take some of the pressure off and ditch the long-to-develop plays where he loses sight of the defense. He needs some positives to build upon and the coaches need to help position him to achieve this.

ND: The Lions need to get Hackenberg some confidence early in this game. He needs protection and he needs the receivers to be able to get open. The Lions will not be able to run the ball Michigan State so the key is to help Hackenberg be successful so he can get some confidence. If he suffers some hits and has a couple of quick 3-and-outs, he will not recover.
PREDICTIONS

MH: Michigan State tends to play down to their opponents, which bodes well for PSU, but given the fundamental passing (and running) issues PSU has had it’s tough to see how they put together consistent drives to keep pace with MSU in this one.

Michigan State 24, Penn State 9

ND: MSU will wear PSU out in the second half and put some points on the board. If this offense couldn't produce against the paltry Illini defense, this week will be far worse. PSU's first home shutout loss since 2001.

Michigan State 24, Penn State 0

Until next time,

Fight On State!

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