MSU vs. Penn State: Keep an eye on the prize

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Matt Charboneau breaks down Saturday's Michigan State-Penn State at Spartan Stadium (3:30 p.m., ESPN / WJR 760).

Nittany Lions to watch

Christian Hackenberg, QB: In his last eight games, the junior has 13 touchdown passes, two rushing touchdowns and one touchdown reception while throwing just one interception, and five games with 200 yards passing or more.

Saquon Barkley, RB: The freshman has been hampered by injuries this season but it hasn’t stopped him from gaining 904 yards in nine games, the fourth-best in the Big Ten. He’s run for more than 100 yards in four games this season, which is second in Penn State history for true freshmen.

Carl Nassib, DE: The senior is one of five finalists for the Nagurski Trophy and the Lombardi Award. He leads the nation with 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss while also ranking first in the FBS with six forced fumbles. His sack streak ended at 10 games last week when he played only three snaps against Michigan.


Momentum: Carrying the momentum created by Michigan State’s victory last week at Ohio State will be vital, something that could be more difficult considering the status of quarterback Connor Cook remains in question. The Spartans have excelled at focusing quickly after a big victory and will be expected to do once again.

Land Grant Trophy: The Land Grant Trophy isn’t one of the iconic symbols in college football, but it’s the 20th time the teams have battled for the trophy, with Penn State holding a 13-6 advantage. However, the Spartans have won two straight in the series.

The clincher: Michigan State sets its sights on winning championships, and a victory Saturday would clinch the Big Ten East Division and lock up a third trip to the conference championship in five years.

Senior Day: Senior Day is not difficult for coach Mark Dantonio. He said he has a tougher time with the final bowl practice. But it will be emotional for the 24 players who will play their final game at Spartan Stadium. They will look to help Dantonio improve on his 5-2 mark on Senior Day.

Keep winning: Sometimes it’s hard to figure exactly what the College Football Playoff committee uses to assemble its rankings, but there’s little doubt an impressive win, followed by a trip to face a highly ranked Iowa team in the Big Ten title game, would help.

Facts and figures

* Michigan State’s senior class has won 41 games, just one shy of matching the record for most victories by a class set in 2013 and 2014. It would become the winningest class if it wins Saturday and then wins next week in the title game.

* The Spartans have now won at least 10 games in five of the last six seasons, with 2012 (seven) being the exception. A victory Saturday would allow Dantonio to become the first Big Ten coach to have five 11-win seasons in a six-year span.

* Senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge needs just one receiving yard to become the 11th Spartan to reach 2,000 receiving yards in his career.

* While Penn State’s offense has struggled this season, the defense is one of the best in the nation. The Nittany Lions are 14th in total defense (314.1 yards per game) and 18th in scoring defense (18.6 points per game).