Michigan State first-half observations: Spartans hold slim lead in snow
East Lansing — No. 12 Michigan State built an early 14-0 lead on Penn State Saturday at Spartan Stadium, but the Nittany Lions responded, scoring 14 in a row before Michigan State got a late field goal then got a stop when Penn State's field-goal attempt inside the final minute sailed wide right, allowing the Spartans to head to the locker room with a 17-14 lead.
The snowy conditions forced a few slips here and there, but overall, it hasn't played too big of a factor, other than a Kenneth Walker III run late in the half that might have been a touchdown most days, but on Saturday, he slid out of bounds at the 5-yard line.
We'll see how it plays out over the final 30 minutes, until then, here are observations on the Spartans' play in the first half:
Holes remain in pass defense
Michigan State’s defense forced a pair of punts in the first half, twice as many as Ohio State was forced to kick a week ago. However, the same deficiencies were prevalent on Saturday as the Spartans’ pass defense continued to get picked apart.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford took advantage late in the first quarter, connecting on two straight passes to Jahan Dotson, the second good for 27 yards and a touchdown. Midway through the second quarter, the Nittany Lions had a three-play drive that lasted 23 seconds as Clifford hit Dotson for a 16-yard pass then a 30-yard touchdown strike as Dotson ran free in the secondary for a touchdown to tie the game at 14.
After the series, ABC reported defensive end Jacub Panasiuk said it was “pathetic” and safety Xavier Henderson took exception as things got heated. With the way the season has gone, it would be surprising if that was the first time there has been tension on the defense.
Walker starts strong
Even with a sore ankle, Kenneth Walker III proved how valuable he was early in the game, scoring a 2-yard touchdown on the first possession of the game then breaking free for a 35-yard run to being the next possession when Michigan State was backed up to its 1-yard line.
He followed with a 15-yard scamper to help set up an eventual touchdown as the Spartans took an early 14-point lead.
From there, however, Penn State was able to limit Walker, the leading rusher in the Big Ten. He had 83 yards on 15 carries in the first half, but if Michigan State expects to pull out a victory, it will need a lot more from arguably its best player.
Thorne solid in snow
Even with the poor weather conditions, quarterback Payton Thorne played well in the opening half, doing a good job of avoiding the rush and extending plays. His first came when he stepped up in the pocket and found tight end Maliq Carr for a 40-yard gain on the opening possession of the game. It helped keep an eight-play drive going which ended with Walker’s 2-yard touchdown run.
On Michigan State’s second possession, Thorne slid out of the pocket, scrambled to his left and found Tre Mosley in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown pass to give the Spartans a 14-0 lead at that point.
Thorne continued to play well late in the half but missed an open Montorie Foster in the end zone, forcing Michigan State to settle for a field goal.