Michigan State vs. Penn State: View from the other side

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Saquon Barkley


John McGonigal, who covers Penn State for the Centre Daily Times, breaks down the Nittany Lions for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Penn State-Michigan State game. You can follow him on Twitter @jmcgonigal9.

Question. How does Penn State bounce back after the loss to Ohio State?

Answer. The Nittany Lions need to not let their foot off the gas. Just like they did in the Rose Bowl, they played it too close to the vest offensively with a lead late against a top team. Penn State's four-minute offense cost them. If and when the Nittany Lions have a lead on Michigan State, they've got to keep attacking. Plus, the only way Penn State makes the College Football Playoff is with convincing wins the rest of the way and a few teams ahead of them losing. If they're ahead, the Nittany Lions won't let up in trying to secure a confidence-building bounce-back win.

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Penn State

Q. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was nearly perfect last week, going 33-for-39. Was that an indication of problems with Penn State’s defense or was it simply about Barrett playing great?

A. It was a combination of Barrett being on fire and Penn State's front four being totally worn down. In dealing with Barrett, Penn State already had a tall task on the road, and when starting defensive end Ryan Buchholz exited the game with an injury on the Nittany Lions' first defensive snap, that didn't help. This is a defensive line that lost senior starter Torrence Brown earlier in the year, too, so redshirt freshman Shaka Toney (more of a splash play, passing-down specialist) had to fill in for the 275-pound Buchholz. Toney played way too many snaps as he and the rest of the line just got tired. They couldn't generate a pass rush in the fourth quarter, and Barrett's good enough to pick apart any secondary when he's afforded that much time. I don't think Penn State's front-four problems will be as magnified going forward, though, considering no team left on the schedule has a quarterback like Barrett operating in a tempo offense.

Q. In Big Ten play, the numbers suggest Penn State’s running game has been a lot like Michigan State’s – all over the map and lacking consistency. What’s been the issue?

A. The offensive line hasn't been great, but I think most inconsistencies running the football stem from how opposing defenses have game-planned around stopping Saquon Barkley. Outside of Michigan, Penn State's Big Ten opponents have stacked the box and played soft coverage in an effort to not only neutralize Barkley but also prevent any deep balls going over their heads. Ohio State did a better job of that than anyone this season because the Buckeyes' secondary is so athletic and their defensive front is arguably the best in the country. Of course, it's not a perfect formula; Barkley's still averaging 5.8 yards per carry. But there've been quite a few negative rushing plays recently, and that's an issue.

More: Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: UM, MSU too similar for own good

Q. Michigan State is last in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage. Any chance Saquon Barkley doesn’t return one for a touchdown Saturday?

A. Honestly, I'm never surprised with what this kid can do. Last week against Ohio State, when he returned the opening kick for 97 yards, there were hardly any "wows" or anything like that from the beat writers in the Ohio Stadium press box. Everyone kind of assumes he'll pull off these crazy plays. So I wouldn't be shocked at all to see him return one to the house at Michigan State. I'd almost be more surprised if the Spartans decide to kick it to him, because they really shouldn't.

Q. Penn State’s last trip to East Lansing didn’t go well but the Nittany Lions seemed to take care of that with last season’s beat-down in Happy Valley. Any lingering frustrations from the last game at Spartan Stadium?

A. I don't think there are lingering frustrations at all. This 2017 team is totally different from that 2015 squad. You have some familiar faces — Barkley, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, safety Marcus Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda. But Trace McSorley was still a backup in 2015; that was Christian Hackenberg's team. Other guys like Chris Godwin, Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Brandon Bell are in the NFL. If there were any hard feelings about Michigan State running up the score a couple years ago, I think James Franklin and the Nittany Lions got everything out of their systems in last season's 45-12 win.


Saquon Barkley, RB: There’s not much the junior doesn’t do for the Nittany Lions. He’s the team’s leading rusher at 801 yards, is the top pass-catcher with 36 grabs for 471 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season and ranks first in the nation in all-purpose yards per game at 206.3. The Nittany Lions will do whatever they can to get Barkley the ball in space, but he’s been most effective as a runner, averaging 101.1 yards a game this season, highlighted by a 211-yard performance against Iowa.

Trace McSorley

Trace McSorley, QB: The junior is a dual-threat who ranks second in the Big Ten with 296.8 yards of total offense a game, good enough for 19th in the nation. He’s also been efficient as a passer, throwing for 2,071 yards this season for an average of 258.9 a game, with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. In last season’s matchup – a 45-12 victory for the Nittany Lions – McSorley threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns as Penn State outscored Michigan State 35-0 in the second half on its way to an East Division title and a spot in the Big Ten championship game.

Christian Campbell, CB: While S Marcus Allen and CB Grant Haley are semifinalists for the Thorpe Award, Campbell has been the most productive Penn State defensive back. The senior has 10 passes defended this season for an average of 1.3 a game, which is tied for third in the Big Ten. He’s broken up nine passes and intercepted one, that coming in the victory over Northwestern, and had a pass breakup in each of the first seven games of the season.


Big wins: Michigan State is 8-5 in its last 13 games against teams ranked in the AP Top 10, including 7-5 since 2013 with wins over No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Stanford in 2013; No. 4 Baylor in 2014; No. 7 Oregon, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Iowa in 2015; and No. 7 Michigan in 2017. Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have beaten 18 Top-25 teams and have an 8-9 overall record against teams ranked in the top 10.

Finishing strong: Dantonio has always made a point of emphasizing to his team that championships are won in November. In the last three Big Ten championship seasons, Michigan State is 10-1 in the month of November (3-0 in 2010, 4-0 in 2013, 3-1 in 2015). Under Dantonio, the Spartans are 25-10 in November, winning 19 of the last 26 games in the month.

Airing it out: After a few weeks of struggles, the Michigan State passing attack took off last week as sophomore QB Brian Lewerke threw for a program-record 445 yards and four touchdowns in a triple-overtime loss at Northwestern. The receivers also had big games as freshman Cody White had a career-high in catches (nine) and yards (165) while sophomore Darrell Stewart established career-bests, as well, with 11 catches for 85 yards. The 165 yards from White were the most by a freshman in MSU history.