MSU can't stop Penn State offense; Spartans can only hope to contain Nittany Lions
East Lansing — When it comes to stopping Penn State, there is no simple answer.
That’s because attempting to completely shut down the top scoring offense in the Big Ten is nearly impossible. So the better solution for Michigan State on Saturday would be to simply slow the Nittany Lions.
To accomplish that, things are a little clearer — slow down senior quarterback Trace McSorley.
“Obviously, No. 9 is a good player,” Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie said. “He’s got a big arm. I think he’s fifth in how deep his passes go, so they’re gonna take shots against us and you have to accept the challenge if you’re a D-back and we’ve got to get pressure up front.
“It’s a fun game. It’s gonna be a good game.”
Fun might not be the way most of No. 8 Penn State’s opponents have described facing McSorley over the years. That included Michigan State, which has had varying levels of success in that category.
In last season’s 27-24 victory at home, the Spartans held McSorley to just 2 yards rushing but he threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns. It was a similar story in a blowout loss on the road in 2016 when McSorley threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns while running for only 13 yards.
“McSorley is really a triple-threat out there and that's a part of the game plan,” defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said. “That's obvious that we need to stop their run game with McSorley and also to stop their pass game with McSorley. That's always the challenge and we're looking forward to it.”
And that’s the challenge with McSorley — focus on one aspect of his game and he beats you with the other. While he’s been effective throwing the ball in the past against Michigan State, this season he’s running the ball better, averaging 82 yards a game. At the same time, he’s completing just 52.9 percent of his passes for 209 yards a game.
Even so, the Spartans know the Nittany Lions quarterback remains the focal point.
“I think McSorley is an excellent player,” Dantonio said. “They are a challenge offensively, and he creates that dynamic, that multiple run/pass-guy type quarterback, and he's got a toughness aspect to him, too.
"He's a great player, great leader, and a lot of their success hinges on what he does, so we need to negate his abilities as best we can.”
What makes the challenge even tougher for the top rushing defense in the country is the fact Penn State (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) also has running back Miles Sanders, who is averaging 107.6 yards a game and has scored six rushing touchdowns.
Sanders has taken over for Saquon Barkley, who had his share of problems against Michigan State. But Sanders is explosive, running for 200 yards against Illinois and broken two runs of 40 yards or more this season for the Nittany Lions.
He believes patience is the key against the Spartans.
“I think (the offensive line) is the strongest part of our offense, and we’ve found an identity running the ball,” Sanders told the Centre Daily Times. “Their run defense is real good, so it starts with being more physical than them and being patient and taking those three-yard, four-yard runs. And when it’s time to split one, split it.”
Of course, splitting it hasn’t happened against Michigan State, which hasn’t allowed a run of 20 yards or more this season.
Much of that is thanks to tackles Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams playing their best football while getting backed up by Bachie in the middle with help from defensive end Kenny Willekes and active safeties.
“Their D-tackles and their D-ends are big, are strong, are physical, are very, very aggressive,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “They have got the two Panasiuk boys that we recruited that are problems, that are problems, very physical, very physical inside. Raequan Williams is massive. He's 6-4,300 pounds. When you watch the tape and you're looking at all those thighs and legs and rear ends, I mean, they are massive.
“And then they have a middle linebacker that we think is one of the better linebackers that we've seen on tape this year in Bachie.”
The Michigan State captain, who had an interception in last season’s matchup, knows the oddsmakers aren’t given the Spartans (3-2, 1-1) much of a chance, but that hasn’t stopped him from looking forward to the challenge.
“We know we can beat ’em. That’s our mindset,” Bachie said. “If our mindset wasn’t that then we wouldn’t come out here and practice like we (have). We understand we can bet ’em. It’s gonna be a fun game. To come in here to play a team like this, you gotta love it. There’s going to be 110,000 (fans) and hopefully they’re rocking. We feed off that.”
Michigan State at Penn State
Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Records: Michigan State 3-2, 1-1 Big Ten; Penn State 4-1, 1-1
Line: Penn State by 13.5