View from the other side: Michigan State at Penn State
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
View from the other side
John McGonigal covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He breaks down the Nittany Lions for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan State-Penn State game at Beaver Stadium.
1. Penn State lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State last season a week before its loss at Michigan State. How do the Nittany Lions avoid that this year?
McGonigal: That was actually a point of emphasis for the Nittany Lions immediately following their 27-26 loss to Ohio State a couple weekends ago. After the game, quarterback Trace McSorley and safety Nick Scott — the offensive and defensive captains, respectively — addressed the team in the locker room and basically said, "Hey, this sucks, but it can't snowball." Guys like McSorley, Scott, Juwan Johnson and Shareef Miller remember all too well that feeling walking off the field at Spartan Stadium last November. The Nittany Lions let that one-point loss at Ohio State last year seep into their psyche and break their focus heading into Michigan State. And while this Penn State team is young — the Nittany Lions traveled 15 true freshmen to Illinois a few weeks ago — there are enough leaders that learned from their mistakes last year.
2. Did the bye week come at the right time?
McGonigal: I think it did. That gut-wrenching, heartbreaking loss to the Buckeyes did a number on James Franklin, his team and the fans. The Nittany Lions needed some time to reflect and review the film from Ohio State. The defense performed well for three quarters — better than anyone really expected Brent Pry’s unit to perform. But there was plenty to look over in its fourth-quarter collapse. Same goes for the offense and its play-callers. The bye week also helped get some players healthy. Franklin does not discuss specifics about injuries, but redshirt freshman phenom K.J. Hamler exited that Ohio State game with an apparent head after being on the receiving end of a targeting penalty. The Nittany Lions will get him back, as well as former five-star defensive end Shane Simmons, who will make his first appearance of the season this Saturday. The addition of Simmons, who dealt with a foot injury, bolsters Penn State's depth at edge rusher — a position that wore down late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State.
3. How important is it that KJ Hamler will likely be in the lineup?
McGonigal: It's incredibly important that Hamler is expected to play. McSorley runs the offense, and Miles Sanders is a powerful back, but it's Hamler that sparks the Nittany Lions. The team's leading receiver through five games, his 23.69 yards per reception (308 yards on 13 catches) is fifth-best in the country and will be a Penn State single-season record if he keeps it up. His 93-yard touchdown catch-and-run — when the Nittany Lion offense was kind of out-of-rhythm — ignited Penn State against Ohio State.
And it's not just his prowess as a receiver that makes him special. Hamler boasts a pair of 52-yard kickoff returns, the first of which jump-started Penn State in the fourth quarter of its Week 1 upset scare against Appalachian State. His 26.2 yards per return ranks 19th in the country and third in the Big Ten. I liken him to Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreke Hill: Any time he gets the ball, the crowd knows something nutty might happen.
4. What will be the key to keeping a solid running game going against MSU?
McGonigal: In two games against Michigan State, McSorley has 15 rushing yards on 17 carries. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne must get No. 9 involved in the running game this go-around. McSorley exposed Ohio State's defense, specifically its slower linebackers, a couple weeks ago with 175 yards on the ground. On the season, he has 19 rushes of 10 yards or more; that ranks second in the country among quarterbacks and second-most in the Big Ten behind Sanders and Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor.
So, McSorley needs to be involved. And obviously so does Sanders, who does a great job of getting north and south. Saquon Barkley — for all the dazzling runs and mesmerizing hurdles — was frequently stopped behind the line of scrimmage because he tried to break every play. While Sanders can bust one loose, he's more of a one-cut back that'll barrel through linebackers and linemen alike. He rarely gets stopped for a loss. Against Ohio State, he rushed for 43 yards and averaged 2.7 yards per carry. In Penn State's previous four contests, he averaged 123.8 yards per game and 6.97 yards per attempt. Attention on McSorley should open up opportunities for Sanders to be closer to the latter, getting four or five yards a pop along the way.
5. MSU hasn’t done a great job of slowing Trace McSorley in the past. Do the Spartans have a chance this season?
McGonigal: Honestly, the only way that happens is if Penn State suffers from self-inflicted mistakes. Through five games, the Nittany Lions have 12 drops — five of which have come from Juwan Johnson, who garnered preseason NFL hype. He has not had the type of season everyone expected, and neither has DeAndre Thompkins, who lost his grip on his starting spot after two dropped touchdowns at Pitt. So, if Penn State's pass-catchers drop more of McSorley's passes, then I could see the offense's rhythm getting out of whack a bit. But even with those issues, McSorley has, for the most part, done what's needed in the passing game. And Michigan State's 122nd-ranked pass defense is still showing up, so the likelihood of McSorley eclipsing 300 passing yards for the third straight year against the Spartans is high.
Players to watch
►Trace McSorley, Sr., QB; The senior is the heart of the Nittany Lions and their most effective offensive weapon, evidenced by his 286 yards passing with two touchdowns against Ohio State, along with a career-best 175 yards rushing. Michigan State did a good job of containing McSorley in last season’s matchup, but he enters this game having thrown a touchdown pass in a school-record 33 straight games.
►K.J. Hamler, Fr., WR: The redshirt freshman from Pontiac left the Ohio State game with an apparent head injury but should be back in the lineup this week. In limited time, Hamler made an impact against the Buckeyes, catching four passes for 138 yards, including a 93-yard touchdown reception. Hamler enters the game leading the Big Ten in yards per reception at 23.69 and has six catches this season of 20 yards or more.
►Amani Oruwariye, Sr., CB: The senior had interceptions in each of Penn State’s first two games, the first Nittany Lion to have interceptions in back-to-back games since he accomplished the same feat last season. Oruwariye is third in the Big Ten in passes defended (7) and has five pass break-ups.
Facts and figures
►Trophy time: It’s not the most notable award in college sports, but Michigan State and Penn State play for the Land Grant Trophy, established in 1993. The Nittany Lions hold the advantage, winning 14 of the 22 matchups while the Spartans have won eight with two of those coming at Beaver Stadium.
►Big games: Michigan State has had its share of success against teams ranked in the top 10. Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans are 9-5 in the last 14 games vs. teams in the Associated Press top 10. Included in those victories was last season’s 27-24 win at home over No. 7 Penn State.
►Rough road: The Michigan State defense enters the game as the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation, allowing 33.8 yards a game. The Spartans have not allowed an opponent to run for 100 yards in eight straight games. It will be difficult to make it nine in a row as Penn State is averaging 261.2 yards a game on the ground.