MSU: Five things we learned vs. Penn State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Solid play by the offensive line enabled La'Darius Jefferson to reel off a season-long 27-yard run in Saturday's win over Penn State.

Here are five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following MSU's 21-17 victory over Penn State on Saturday.

O-line rises to fore

Probably the most maligned aspect of Michigan State’s team — outside of the play-calling of co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner — has been the play of the offensive line. Some of the problems up front have been hard for the Spartans to control as injuries have done a number on that group dating back to preseason camp. But against Penn State, the offensive line — for the first time — looked like a cohesive unit. Some of that was the fact there was really only one healthy backup, so the same five went the whole way in the win over Penn State. This group, which included a healthy Cole Chewins — 100 percent for the first time this season — actually found success running the ball on first down and did a good job, for the most part, of protecting quarterback Brian Lewerke.

The overall rushing numbers still weren’t anything that will shock anyone as the Spartans gained 123 yards on the ground, but there were signs things are starting to turn. La’Darius Jefferson’s 27-yard run was the longest this season by an MSU running back while the Spartans gained 5 or more yards on first-down runs six times while gaining 4 yards three times. Again, it was far from outstanding, but considering how the line has struggled, Saturday’s win was the first sign of improvement.

Davis the difference maker

If there was ever any doubt who the Spartans will look to when they need a big play, Saturday’s victory proved it’s wide receiver Felton Davis. The senior has eight grabs for 100 yards, but seven of those catches came in the second half. He also scored twice, including the game-winner that he hauled in just a couple of plays after suffering a hip injury that left him lying on the Beaver Stadium turf. Davis took just one play off, however, and willed the Spartans to the win, saying he was at about 60 percent when he made the winning grab.

Davis provides plenty of comfort for quarterback Brian Lewerke, who said after the game there was no other place he was throwing the ball, even if Davis was double-covered. As Davis proved on his first touchdown catch as well as a first-down grab along the sidelines in the fourth quarter, he can make the tough play.

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Shutdown defense

The Michigan State defense entered the game allowing a ridiculous 33.8 yards a game on the ground, a number there was no way the Spartans could continue all season. They saw that evaporate quickly on Saturday by allowing a 78-yard run to Miles Sanders, who also had a 48-yard touchdown run. But outside of those two plays, the defense was its usual self, avoiding any more big plays on the ground while limiting Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley to 37 rushing yards.

What was most impressive, however, was the fact the 122nd-ranked passing defense in the nation held the top-scoring offense in the Big Ten to 192 yards passing and a season-low 17 points. McSorley was unable to take the deep shots he’s become so good at and often found himself settling for his second and third options. It was a complete defensive performance — even with the two big plays — that Michigan State hadn’t had this season. More games like that, and Saturday’s big win won’t be the last.

Overcoming injury bug

It’s hard to say when the injuries for the Spartans went from a possible excuse to a crippling reality, but the Spartans headed to Penn State Saturday without running back LJ Scott, guard Kevin Jarvis, guard David Beedle and wide receivers Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor. Add in cornerback Josiah Scott who hasn’t played yet this season and the depth is being tested unlike it has in most seasons under Mark Dantonio.

However, the Spartans have found a way to push through. Sophomore receiver Cam Chambers, who has battled his own injuries, is making the most of his opportunity, as has sophomore Laress Nelson, who also got hurt late on Saturday. And sophomore Connor Heyward and freshman La’Darius Jefferson have become solid options in the backfield that are just scratching the surface. So, while the injuries have been a problem, they have also led to opportunities being seized.

Edge returns

Playing with a chip on their shoulder. It’s a phrase the Spartans have perfected under Dantonio and one that has annoyed its rivals. For the better part of the last few weeks, it seemed that chip had disappeared. Well, the win Saturday at Penn State proved that chip still resides firmly on the Spartans’ shoulders as they reveled in the I-told-you-so moments just after the victory. It was such a big deal, they even had actual poker chips with them on Saturday.

How that plays the rest of the season is yet to be seen, but with rival Michigan up next, it’s a pretty good bet that chip won’t be going anywhere soon.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau