View from the other side: Penn State at Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

Penn State at Michigan State

► Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

► TV/radio: ABC/760

► Records: No. 6 Penn State 7-0, 4-0; Michigan State 4-3, 2-2

► Line: Penn State by 6.5

View from the other side

Rich Scarcella covers Penn State for the Reading Eagle. He breaks down the Nittany Lions for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan State-Penn State game at Spartan Stadium.

You can follow him on Twitter @nittanyrich

► Question: How much of a surprise has QB Sean Clifford been this season?

► Scarcella: Clifford has been a pleasant surprise because no one outside the program knew what to expect. He had seen limited action before this season and was on track to be the backup until Tommy Stevens transferred in the spring. Because Clifford hit a few deep passes last season, the conventional wisdom was that he was more of a passer than a runner. But he’s run effectively and he’s protected the ball, turning it over just twice.

► Question: KJ Hamler has been doing it all. What must MSU do to limit the Michigan native?

► Scarcella: Hamler’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball because of his blazing speed. The Spartans can’t let him get behind their secondary or try to cover him one-on-one. Penn State opponents have done a terrific job limiting Hamler’s kickoff and punt returns. He had a 100-yard kickoff return last week against Michigan that was wiped out by a holding penalty. He was unofficially timed at a ridiculous 10.99 on the return.

► Question: What’s the key to Penn State finding offensive consistency?

► Scarcella: The Nittany Lions have relied on explosive plays, but they’ve gone through unproductive stretches in their last three games. They need to find tight end Pat Freiermuth and the running backs on shorter, intermediate routes; to commit to the run, especially with freshman Noah Cain; to give Clifford more time; and for Clifford to take what the defense gives him.

► Question: Penn State gets after the QB while MSU has struggled up front. Should Brian Lewerke be nervous?

More: Michigan State mailbag: Need for speed is glaring

► Scarcella: The Lions rank fourth in the nation in sacks, but they had just three in the last two games against Michigan and Iowa. The Spartans, on the other hand, have allowed only 10 sacks, second-fewest in the Big Ten. Penn State sacked Lewerke three times last season and twice in 2017. The Lions want to be disciplined in their rush lanes and limit his scrambling.

► Question: MSU has won two straight in the series. Is there any sense from PSU of revenge?

► Scarcella: The Lions recite a mantra of going 1-0 every week, but they’re fully aware that the Spartans came back in the fourth quarter to beat them twice in the last two seasons. They understand how difficult it will be to win in East Lansing and have plenty of respect for Michigan State. Penn State will be motivated, but will they have enough in the tank after physical games against Michigan and Iowa? That’s why they’ve created depth on both sides of the ball.

Players to watch

KJ Hamler, WR: The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week is coming off another impressive performance where he had 108 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the win over Michigan while clinching the victory with a 4-yard run in the final minutes. Hamler, who was a top recruiting target for Michigan State, leads the Big Ten with seven touchdown receptions. In last season’s matchup, Hamler had five catches for 66 yards and a touchdown.

Sean Clifford, QB: There was a certain level of concern at Penn State after last season ended knowing it would have to replace Trace McSorley, and when Tommy Stevens transferred, that ramped up the worry. However, Clifford has proven those concerns were unfounded as he’s been outstanding, throwing for more than 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for 269 yards and three more scores. His 287.3 total yards per game leads the Big Ten while he’s thrown six passes this season for 50 yards or more.

► Yetur Gross-Matos, DE: The junior helps lead a Penn State defense that is second in the Big Ten with 28 sacks. Gross-Matos and fellow end Shaka Toney have 5.5 sacks each while Gross-Matos leads the team with nine tackles for loss. He had five tackles in last week’s win over Michigan and has been named to the Sporting News Midseason All-American team while earning second-team midseason honors from the Associated Press.

MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke

Facts and figures

► Solid starts: Through the start of the seventh week of the season, Penn State was the only team in FBS to not allow a first-quarter point. Iowa snapped that streak with a first-quarter field goal, but the three points remain the only points the Nittany Lions have allowed in the first quarter. Penn State is outscoring opponents 76-3 in the first quarter and it joins Wisconsin as the only two teams in the nation to not allow a first-quarter touchdown.

Big plays: The Nittany Lions showed in last week’s win over Michigan that explosive plays are a big part of the offense. Entering this week’s game, Penn State is 15th in the nation in pass plays of 15 yards or more with 45, or 21.47 percent of its passing plays. The Nittany Lions have also had nine pass plays of more than 50 yards this season, which has helped the offense average 40 points a game, which is good for 10th in the nation.

Big losses: While the offense has had its share of big plays, the Penn State defense has been effective at pushing opponents in the wrong direction. The Nittany Lions rank fourth in the nation with 8.9 tackles for loss per game while 23 different players have recorded at least a half-tackle for loss this season. Penn State had double-digit tackles for loss in each of the first three games (11 vs. Idaho, 10 vs. Buffalo, 10 vs. Pittsburgh), the first time it’s done that since 2007 when it accomplished the feat in each of the first four games.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau