Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke and RB Elijah Collins talk about the offense's struggles in the loss to Penn State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State is no longer playing for a championship.
That much was probably clear before Saturday’s 28-7 loss to No. 6 Penn State.
But it’s also a reality for the Spartans as they take their final bye next week before the final four games of the regular season. And when a team is in that position, it starts to walk the line of still winning games and trying to become bowl eligible with getting younger players valuable playing time.
That’s exactly the position Michigan State (4-4, 2-3 Big Ten) is in now.
“Trying to balance a little bit but it's not going to take away from what is it going to take to win a football game,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio explained on Saturday.
While injuries and transfers have forced some moves there were more signs against Penn State that the Spartans are trying to get some true freshmen into the mix. J.D. Duplain played in the second half at left guard, his fifth game of the season that burned the redshirt, while running back Brandon Wright and wide receiver Tre Mosley each played for the first time this season.
Mosley had four catches for 37 yards while Wright carried the ball twice for 5 yards.
“I think Tre Mosley went out there and caught the ball well in traffic, made some difficult catches — I don't think he dropped one and they were close; there were some 50-50 catches there,” Dantonio said. “It was good to see and I'm sure there were some other things that will be good to see. I think Brandon Wright poured it up in there a little bit. He's getting experience; he's got a lot of talent. We could probably use him a little bit more.”
Wide receiver Julian Barnett and running back Anthony Williams are two other freshmen who have been playing regularly. Williams scored his first career touchdown while Barnett didn’t get much playing time until the second half.
MSU's Antjuan Simmons, David Dowell and Raequan Williams talk about the defense's performance in the loss to Penn State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Dantonio said that was because Barnett only knows the outside receiver position and only came in the game after Darrell Stewart was hurt.
Players can appear in four games without burning their redshirt. Barnett, Williams and Duplain have played more than four games while the other true freshmen have yet to reach that mark.
Included in that group is offensive lineman Devontae Dobbs, who has played in two games but sat out Saturday with an injury.
Michigan State had its share of injuries entering the game and suffered a handful more against the Nittany Lions.
The Spartans were once again without offensive lineman Cole Chewins, wide receiver Jalen Nailor and offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis while Dobbs and wide receiver C.J. Hayes did not play because of undisclosed injuries.
That was just before the game, however. During the game, running back Elijah Collins, linebacker Tyriq Thompson, tight end Matt Seybert and defensive end Jacub Panasiuk got hurt but returned to the game. Collins said his injury was simply a rolled ankle that needed to be retaped.
Stewart, center Matt Allen and right tackle Jordan Reid were hurt and didn’t return, though Allen and Reid were injured late in the game.
Michigan State coach talks about the loss to Penn State, the third in a row for the Spartans. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
While a handful of players were banged up, the Spartans also got a few back in the lineup.
AJ Arcuri started at left tackle after missing the last five games with a leg injury while cornerback Shakur Brown returned after missing every game but the opener against Tulsa.
Tight end Trenton Gillison was back after missing the Wisconsin game while offensive lineman Blake Bueter returned after missing the last two games with a leg injury.
“We got some injured guys that went down in the game,” Dantonio said. “We lost probably one, two, three receivers and one didn't play coming into the game and we lost two more during the game so it was a little tough in that aspect, but we kept playing.”
Penn State did not give up any first-quarter points and has only allowed three points in the opening quarter all season, an average of 0.38 points allowed in the first quarter. The Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 97-3 in the first quarter this year.
… The Nittany Lions shut out the Spartans in the first half, marking the third time this year Penn State put up zeroes in the opening half this season (Idaho and Maryland).
… The Penn State defense has held its last 10 regular-season opponents to 21 points or less.