Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's matchup against Michigan State.
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.
MH: Penn State’s coping with red-zone deficiencies and heading to East Lansing to face a Spartan squad that is playing for a Big Ten title game berth and a potential spot in the playoffs. The Lions have to show vast improvement on offense and special teams in order to end the regular season on an upswing.
ND: The Lions are coming off of a disappointing loss to Michigan where the red-zone efficiency was shockingly bad. The Spartans won an ugly game in Columbus to beat the Buckeyes and take the driver’s seat for the Big Ten East title. The Lions are going to be on the road and will be playing the role of the spoiler. But, in order to deliver the spoils, they have to get more consistency on offense and stop the self-inflicted wounds on special teams.
Who: Penn State @ No. 6 Michigan State
When: Saturday, 3:30pm ET
Where: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Series: Tied at 14-14-1
Line: Michigan State -11 as of Wednesday afternoon
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their road clash with Michigan State.
ANYTHING BUT: Penn State has to address the widespread liability that is special teams play. Granted, the Lions get credit for a key blocked punt vs. Michigan. But on the whole, a muffed punt catch, inconsistent punts, short kickoffs and porous kick coverage have created consistent issues for the team. I am not confident this will change in a week, but eliminating some of the mental mistakes will be significant against MSU.
RED ALERT: PSU’s defense continues to manage to hand opportunities to the offense only to see them be squandered. The Lions’ red-zone offense was atrocious vs. Michigan, setting for field goals inside the 10-yard line in lieu of touchdowns. Again, it’s tough to make a turnaround in a week, but a big first step that can help is with play-calling that focuses on the speed and advantages the offense has to exploit what the defense is presenting.
LINE UP: While the defensive front didn’t get a consistent surge on Michigan’s passing game, the line did manage to handle Michigan’s rushing game, holding it to 87 yards on 30 carries. The defensive front has to shore up the pass rush though since it will be facing efficient quarterbacks in Connor Cook and/or Tyler O’Connor who, when given time, are both consistent in their delivery.
STUFFED UP: It’s likely Michigan State will follow its in-state rival’s approach of focusing on the run to force the game on Christian Hackenberg’s shoulders. Hackenberg has done well protecting the ball and showed heart converting a critical fourth and 10 and running for a key first down on third and 14 vs. Michigan. The issue is with his consistency, which fluctuates. He’s still challenged by pressure, so watch for MSU to dial it up. With a struggling offensive line, that’s a major concern for Penn State.
MISSED AGAIN: One of the biggest areas PSU’s defense has to improve upon is with tackling fundamentals. Generally speaking, the unit has too many up-high arm tackles. On top of this, the open-field tackling skills continue to be deficient for the Lions. The question is whether this can be addressed in short order 11 games into the season.
ND: In this section, we check out Michigan State. With a win, Sparty advances to the Big Ten title game and puts itself in position to earn a berth in the NCAA playoffs.
SIMMERING SITUATION: Cook has an injured non-throwing shoulder that held him out of the Ohio State game. It is questionable if Cook will be playing for his Senior Day against the Lions. If he does, the PSU will be facing another very efficient QB. He is not a running QB, but he is able to move and can pick up quite a bit of ground. If Cook does not play, the Spartans will turn to O’Connor, who put away the Buckeyes. He made just enough plays to put the Spartans in a position to win, but it will be interesting to see how he will perform in good weather conditions.
HANDS OFF: Aaron Burbridge is the star receiver for the Spartans. He is leading the Big Ten in both receptions and receiving yards per game. He runs great routes, has fantastic hands and can run both the short and the long routes. The Lions have shown a real weakness is tackling at the line of scrimmage on flanker screens. I look for the Spartans to get the ball early to Burbridge and then set up this young Nittany Lion secondary with a double move.
TWO PAIR: The main reason that Michigan State has been so successful this year is its ability to control both lines of scrimmage. Offensively, this is an experienced unit that is anchored by a pair of Jacks – Jack Allen and Jack Conklin. This unit is exceptional at protecting the QB. They have given up only 15 sacks this entire year. If Carl Nassib is still banged up, this unit will be able to dominate the Lions, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will need to come up with another way to get pressure on the QB. Otherwise it will be a repeat of last week.
BULL-Y: Riley Bullough continues the family tradition of great players donning the Green and White. He is a very active LB who seems to always be around the ball and plays with the same motor with which his family has become synonymous. The Lions are going to struggle running the ball if the offensive line can’t get to the second level to put a hat on guys like Bullough.
STUFF IT: Shilique Calhoun is a true athletic specimen. He is as athletic a defensive end as you will find in college football. He has had a very strong football career and he is delivering on the high expectations this year. He is one of the leading sackers in the conference and is a key part of a defensive line that completely shutdown the Ohio State offense. Penn State will have to find a way to put a TE over on that side of the ball to help block Calhoun and keep him out of the backfield.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: The bad news is that Penn State is dealing with a myriad of issues ranging from clock management and play-calling to special teams and tackling. The good news is that addressing a few of these could pay significant dividends for the squad. The problem is that these issues are so widespread so late in the season. The Lions have to play mostly mistake-free football to really have a legitimate shot in the game.
ND: It is one thing for the team to not execute, but it’s an entirely separate conversation when the Lions hand over a win to their opponent because of atrocious special teams play, bad clock management or mental mistakes. The Lions can stay in this game if they find a way to prevent the couple of a critical mistakes that seal their fate. The key to this game is play a complete, smart game against a quality opponent.
MH: The Spartans have a lot on the line in this game — an appearance in the Big Ten title game and a potential invitation to the playoffs. Add in Senior Day for MSU and the fact that it just rolled past Ohio State and this one does not align well for the Nittany Lions. I think the defense once again hands some opportunities to the offense, but once again I suspect they'll be squandered.
Michigan State 24, Penn State 13
ND: I think this game is going to stay pretty close almost the entire way. But a couple of critical mistakes will be the difference in this one. James Franklin has yet to beat a ranked opponent while wearing the Blue and White and I don’t see that changing this week.
Michigan State 20, Penn State 16
Until next time,
Fight On State!