Download the full FOS Blitz gameday guide at the link below, or simply read Nirav and Mark's game preview below.
FOS Staffer Rob Riva substitutes for Mark this week.
Nrav Dalal: Well, I guess Mark felt that since the Special Teams took a vacation last week that he could take one this week. So, Rob, thanks for filling in as we breakdown this week's matchup against Michigan State. PSU needs to win in East Lansing to keep its BCS hopes alive. This is no easy task for the Lions. Michigan State has a ton of talent and the Lions have been sleep walking in the first half for most of this season.
Rob Riva: Thanks Nirav. I'm just keeping Mark's seat warm. To say the Nittany Lions have looked unimpressive and uninspired the last two weeks would be an understatement. Ever since the Ohio State game, Penn State simply hasn't looked sharp, and it should be a concern for Nittany Lions' fans. Luckily, last week Penn State's early funk happened against the lowly Indiana Hoosiers and the Nittany Lions were able to extend their win streak against Indiana, but if that type of performance happens again this week against Michigan State, the Land Grant Trophy will likely stay in East Lansing. However, the Nittany Lions can beat the Spartans as long as they don't beat themselves. It will be interesting to see how Penn State responds this week.
Other Big Games This Weekend:
ND: I'm going to be watching the Wisconsin/Northwestern and Iowa/Minnesota games very closely. Wisconsin and Iowa are two teams that are also contending for the BCS At-large bid along with Penn State. Neither team has been to a BCS game in awhile and both fan bases will travel. The question will be which team wins on Saturday and which team intrigues the Bowl reps, who only want a great matchup and the most revenue.
RR: Ohio State's match up with Michigan won't be a contest, but it's still one of the most historic rivalries in all of college football, and for that reason will be worth watching. OK, so maybe it will also be worth watching if you enjoy watching the Wolverines get crushed. As a side note, could this be Tate Forcier's last game as a Wolverine?
ND: After starting out the season ranked among the elite, Ole Miss vanished. But, the play of Snead and the power of that team offensively is still there. I really like Ole Miss knocking off LSU this weekend. The game is in Mississippi and LSU is banged up. This could have implications for Penn State if the Lions are not able to win this weekend.
RR: The Pac 10 will have conference winner other than USC this year, and Oregon has put itself in a position to take the crown from the Trojans. However, I like Arizona at home with the upset over Oregon.
ND: Penn State's offense appears to be a shell of the team that started out this season so strong. Moye has disappeared. The passing game has absolutely no rhythm and the offensive line has struggled to open up gaping holes for Royster. This trend has to change this week. Clark had another tough outing against Indiana but he did just enough to help the Lions win. What should be concerning is that Clark is not getting time to deliver the football and the WR have not been able to get down the field. The medium range routes have not been there for Penn State the last two weeks. In order for the passing attack to get back on track, the offensive line must provide Clark with far better protection and the receivers have to get off the line of scrimmage and then get separation. Easier said than done. Michigan State has not been very good against the pass but they are able to get pressure on the passer (19th in the nation in sacks) and, more importantly, they play Jeremy Ware right up at the line of scrimmage. Jerel Worthy has done very well as a redshirt freshman. At the defensive tackle position, he has been able to get pressure up the middle and disrupts offenses.
But, what he does is free up Greg Jones, who is likely to be the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, to attack the backfield. Jones has 7.5 sacks and 11 TFLs. The Lions have to account for Jones. Look for the Lions to stay away from an empty backfield set so that either Suhey or Royster can help pick up the blitz.
I think this game could all come down to the running game. Michigan State is one of the better teams stopping the run. Again, much of this is because of the strength of their front seven. Jones gets a ton of publicity, rightfully so, but Eric Gordon is also very good. He has 79 tackles and does a very good job shedding blocks and taking down the ball carrier. Royster needs to hit the hole hard and then weave his way through the bodies. I think the Lions have to run the ball well between the tackles so that the offensive line can get to the linebackers. These backers are fast and they pursue well. The way to take that way is run right at them and try to get them caught up in all the bodies.
The offensive play calling has been questionable at best and it will need to improve significantly this week. The Lions tried to get a little too cute down the stretch the last time they visited East Lansing. They have to go back to being able to run the ball. RR: The Spread HD has gone analog the past two weeks, and it will be interesting to see what the offensive performance will be on Saturday. Penn State has the horses to run the Spartans completely off the field, but two questions remain: (1) will the coaching staff open up the offense and (2) will the player execute? The Penn State offense seems to have lost its identity, but the Michigan State defense, with the exception of Greg Jones, doesn't strike the fear into any offensive coach. To be successful, Derek Moye, Graham Zug and freshman Curtis Drake need to step up and play well. Moye has disappeared the past two games, Zug has shown the ability of a solid possession receiver, and Drake made the most of his playing time last week stepping in for an injured Chaz Powell who looks to be out of commission for Saturday's game. Having success through the air will open things up for Evan Royster to run wild on the Spartans' defense. Beyond all of that however, the Penn State offensive line must be able to establish its blocks, which has been an uncertain proposition for five guys up front this year. It seems as if the staff never really got settled with the proper combination of players on this year's line, although the line blocked better in the second half of the Indiana game. If Clark doesn't have time to throw and the holes aren't opening up for Royster, it could be a very long day. The bottom line is that there needs to be consistency on Penn State's offense. The problem is that such consistency simply hasn't been there the last two weeks.
ND: Speaking of the Spread HD, Tom Bradley is essentially preparing for that this week. The Spartans run a number of formations and they move the ball using a variety of methods. They will go with a 4- wide set but they also like to line up in an I-formation to pound the ball. Kevin Cousins is the best young QB in the league. He has a cannon of an arm and he is quite accurate. But, he has a tremendous crop of wide receivers. It's unbelievable that no FBS school gave Blair White any respect coming out of high school. He now ranks 3rd in the conference in receiving yards and 4th in receptions. White is a fantastic route runner and it'll be interesting to see how the Lions combat his ability because Mark Dell and BJ Cunningham are both excellent WRs as well. The Lions secondary have faced dip-n-dunk Northwestern but this will be their toughest task of the year will be slowing down this passing attack. The key is going to be getting pressure on Cousins. The Lions have only tallied 2 sacks in the past two games. Odrick has been getting double teamed all year long but he has not been able to fight through it the last few weeks. Crawford hasn't had a big game since the Michigan game. Though Bowman has been fantastic, the defensive front four must have a great game in order to disrupt Kevin Cousins.
The Spartans are using a running back by committee approach. Even after Ashton Leggett rumbled for 110 yards against Western Michigan, he only got 3 carries against Purdue. Baker is the burner while Leggett is the bowling ball. The Lions defense should not have much trouble stopping the Spartans running attack. Lee has been playing lights out since returning to full-time action. His presence has also allowed Bowman to be far more aggressive. And, lost in the shuffle is Josh Hull, who has really played pretty well this season. The Linebackers that everyone was excited to see this year are finally healthy enough to showcase that talent. The Spartan offense will struggle the ball running the ball. But, Coach D'Antonio is going to use playaction to freeze the Linebackers, which should allow Cousins to pick apart the Penn State secondary. The safety play has been very suspect as of late and I think the Spartans are going to have a field day throwing the ball.
RR: Up until the Ohio State game, you could easily make the argument that this Penn State defense was performing at a level easily at the top of college football. And while the defense remains at the top of many defensive statistical categories, the Penn State defensive players have looked slow, sluggish and, at times, undisciplined the past two weeks. Michigan State's offense can move the ball, particularly through the air, so the entire Nittany Lions' defense will need to step up. Keep in mind, the Spartans will move the ball against Penn State, and they will do so most likely through the air. There is no denying that. Jack Crawford, Eric Lattimore and Jerome Hayes will need to get pressure on Kirk Cousins to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Otherwise, Cousins will make Penn State pay. Additionally, the Nittany Lions will need to put Michigan State in bad starting field position and force mistakes. The problem with the field position battle is that pretty much all facets of Penn State's special teams have been a complete and utter disgrace to date.
ND: What's ironic about Penn State's issues on Special Teams is that Joe stated early on that he did not want to use kids like Justin Brown or Devon Smith because he was concerned that they would have problems handling the football. So, he has turned to Zug, Astorino and Wallace, who have all fumbled the football. But, what should concern the Lions the most is trying to contain Kewshawn Martin. He is 5th in the country in returning kicks with an average over 31 yards. The loss of Brandon Beachum is significant here. He did a really good job on kick coverage.
Michigan State also has a fantastic kicker in Brett Swenson. He is 18 of 20 on the year and is 2 of 3 in kicks over 50 yards. Meanwhile, Aaron Bates is punting the ball very well. He's averaging 42.1 yards per punt and he has dropped 18 punts within the 20 yard line.
The Spartans have a huge advantage on special teams. The Lions must improve rapidly or we could see another game decided by the Special Teams battle.
RR: One word: disgrace. Stephfon Green accelerates much better than Chaz Powell does on kickoff returns, but the upfield blocking, for whatever reason, hasn't worked all season. Graham Zug and Drew Astorino have shown excellent form in their fair catch signals, and when they've tried to make plays, they've coughed up the ball. It'd be nice to see Joe Paterno give Justin Brown or another youngster with some speed to at least try to get some yards off of punts. The kick-off coverage hasn't improved all year, and Michigan State can make you pay with its kick-off returns. Don't be surprised if this game comes down to a special teams play. If that's the case, the odds of that special teams play benefiting Penn State aren't good.
Matchup to Kick Back and Enjoy:
ND: I think the outcome of this game is going to be based on how well Penn State is able to run the ball against Michigan State. The Spartans are not great against the Pass but they are pretty good against the run yielding only 105.91 yards per game. The front seven of Michigan State is fantastic with Worthy clogging lanes and Greg Jones attacking the ball. The Penn State offensive line must move bodies and Evan Royster has to run with, as Joe Paterno has described it, more enthusiasm. I'm interested to see how this matchup plays out.
RR: The nod goes to the Penn State linebackers versus Kirk Cousins for a couple of reasons. First, if anyone is going to beat Penn State straight up for Michigan State, it is Cousins. Sean Lee, Josh Hull and Navorro Bowman will likely need to attack Cousins on various blitz packages if the Penn State defensive ends continue to struggle to get pressure on the quarterback themselves. The Nittany Lions defense cannot let Cousins get in a rhythm, and the linebackers will be key in disrupting that rhythm. The other reason to watch this match up is that Lee and Hull will be playing their last conference game in their college career. The same also may be said for Bowman.
Keys to the Game:
ND: Penn State has struggled against the better defenses when they are backed up against their goal line. For that reason, I think field position is going to be really key in this game. The team that is able to make stops, get yards out of the return game and get turnovers to flip the field will be able to win this game. Whichever team seems to be getting the ball consistently within their own 20 will lose this game.
RR: The keys to the game are simple. For Penn State to win, they have to limit turnovers on offense and utilize the superior talent on offense to go after an outmanned Spartans defense. Penn State's defense should be able to handle the Michigan State offense, although Sparty will be able to move the ball. But, without a doubt, this game will come down to the Penn State offense. The Nittany Lions cannot sit in first or second gear all game on offense, they need to step on the clutch and kick it into high gear. Michigan State can put points on the board, and quickly. For that reason, Penn State can't be content with long drives ending in field goals.
ND: What has really baffled me is how the offensive play calling has changed since the Michigan game. I don't believe that they will get into the rhythm necessary to beat the Spartans. The Spartans are too strong in the passing game and their Special Teams are the best in the conference. That all spells disaster for Penn State. PSU should start making plans for the Outback Bowl.
Michigan State: 30 Penn State 24
RR: The inconsistency of Penn State the last two games is particularly concerning, even though the Spartans are a historically inconsistent team. If the Nittany Lions come out flat as they have the past two weeks, Michigan State will come out victorious.
Michigan State: 24 Penn State: 13
Until next time,
Fight On State! -30-