EAST LANSING, Mich. — Despite limping into Spartan Stadium here riding a two-game losing streak and having long since been eliminated from Big Ten title contention, Penn State still had a chance to impact the race for the conference crown.
A PSU win over favored Michigan State would have clinched first place in the East Division — for rival Ohio State. Which led to the strange site of certain Buckeyes taking to social media to cheer on the Nittany Lions.
So Penn State fans can take some solace in knowing that they were not the only ones feeling the pain when the Nittany Lions bumbled away any shot of winning in the first half before being crushed in the second.
Despite strong efforts by QB Christian Hackenberg, WR Chris Godwin and RB Saquan Barkley, Penn State was blown out, 55-16. The Lions (7-5, 4-4) now carry a three-game skid into a TBA bowl.
The No. 5 Spartans (10-1, 7-1), meanwhile, have shaken off a Nov. 7 loss at Nebraska to win three in a row (including a defeat of OSU), capture the division crown and a spot in the B1G title game (vs. Iowa), and remain alive for the NCAA playoffs.
Here is our take on the game.
MAN OF THE HOUR: Godwin’s terrific sophomore season continued with a career-high 11 catches for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Penn State has had some excellent receivers over the years. But it is difficult to recall anyone who ran as hard after the catch as Godwin does.
CLOSE SECOND: Too bad this game wasn’t closer, or Barkley might have gotten more work. But even playing behind the struggling line and against MSU’s formidable defense, through three quarters Barkley had 12 carries for 79 yards — or 6.6 yards per pop. He finished with 17 carries for 103 yards and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season (he now has a PSU freshman record 1,007).
CLOSE THIRD: Hackenberg’s eight-yard TD pass to Godwin in the second quarter was the 47th scoring strike of his career, moving him past Matt McGloin for the most in school history. For the game, he completed 22 of 39 for 257 yards and two scores despite the O-line’s continued inability to protect him. Yes, he had a pair of interceptions, but the second (a pick six off a batted pass) came in the fourth quarter when the game was out of hand and he probably should not have still been in there.
TURNING POINT: Hackenberg hit senior TE Kyle Carter for a 10-yard gain to the MSU 23 late in the second quarter. It should have been first-and-10, with the Lions down 13-3. But Carter fumbled. DB Demetrious Cox recovered and weaved his way 77 yards for a touchdown and 20-3 lead. A veteran like Carter can’t make that kind of a mistake against an opponent this good.
SOLID STRATEGY: Once the Spartans grabbed the lead, Mark Dantonio wisely relied heavily on the run. MSU pounded out 188 yards and three scores on 38 carries.
NUMBERS GAME: It is difficult to believe, but Michigan State had only 18 more total yards than Penn State in this game (436-418). But the Spartans scored 27 points off four Lion turnovers.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: P Daniel Pasquariello averaged 46.7 yards on four kicks, with a long for 53 yards. MSU only had 12 return yards against him.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: Backup QB Trace McSorely came on late and completed 5 of 8 passes for 39 yards.
WHAT'S UP WITH?
• Penn State’s defense playing its worst game of the year. We get that some key people were out (see below). But the Lions had zero sacks and no tackles for loss. Afterward, MSU QB Connor Cook laughed about not being touched all day.
• The defense being unable to stop the bleeding. Take away a hurry-up drive right before the half, and MSU scored TDs on seven straight possessions. One was on the long fumble return and one was on Hackenberg’s pick six. But you get the point.
• Even more poor tackling from the defense. Clearly the fact that PSU did so little practice work in pads late in the season had a negative impact in this area. The worst offender was S Marcus Allen, who tried to level MSU WR Aaron Burbridge after a catch but didn’t bother wrapping him up. As a result, Burbridge bounced off Allen, spun and raced for a 29-yard TD. PSU was only down 20-10 before the third-quarter TD.
• Michigan State using offensive lineman Jack Allen at RB late in the game while up 48-16. We thought Dantonio had more class than to show up an opponent like that.
• The PSU defense rolling over and allowing Allen to run for a 9-yard TD.
• Penn State’s offensive line not only struggling to protect Hackenberg, but also committing four penalties.
• More special team’s disasters. Koa Farmer coughed up a fumble on a late kickoff return that led to a short-field score for the Spartans. Farmer seemed out of whack all day, with one questionable return out of the end zone and then failing to field a line drive that looked like it could have led to some nice yardage.
• Chris Gulla being used on kickoffs and pooching the ball each time time. His full kickoffs were fielded at the MSU 15, 14 and 24. There has to be SOMEONE on campus who can kick the ball into the end zone. More on this below.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• Senior DE Carl Nassib played PSU’s first two defensive snaps (and did not record any stats) before being replaced by Torrence Brown. Brown did not log a tackle. Nassib, who is dealing with an unspecified injury, did not return. The same thing happened in the previous week’s loss to Michigan. This week, however Nassib was dressed in street clothes for the second half.
• Senior Anthony Zettel moved from DT to DE for this game. It didn’t go so well. He had only two tackles and a pass deflection.
• Lions who did not make the trip due to unspecified injuries included DE Garrett Sickels, TE Mike Gesicki and K Joey Julius (hence Gulla kicking off).
• Penn State reshuffled its offensive line again, going to a unit it used earlier in the season. It featured: LT Andrew Nelson, LG Derek Dowrey, C Angelo Mangiro, RG Brian Gaia, RT Brendan Mahon. It didn’t do much good, as Hackenberg was sacked two more times and hit a bunch more.
• The Lions also used an unbalanced line at times, lining up big Paris Palmer outside of Nelson. It seemed to help in the running game.
UNANSWERED QUESTION: Will some time off and then bowl practices allow this team to fix what ails it.