East Lansing — If Michigan State has as shot to pull off the upset over No. 8 Penn State this week and close an otherwise difficult season on a high note, odds are it will do so on the ground.
That’s because the Spartans have been running the ball well for the past five weeks and slowing down an effective ground game isn’t exactly Penn State’s strong suit. In four of the past five games, Michigan State has run the ball for more than 200 yards while sophomore running back LJ Scott has gone over the 100-yard mark in four of those five games as well.
It’s allowed Scott to become the clear No. 1 back ahead of junior Gerald Holmes and sophomore Madre London.
“LJ is a good tailback,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s what I envisioned for all the guys we recruited at every single position. We want them to be tremendous football players. He’s had some other good games, I think he has been the lead horse at other times. There has been times when every one of those tailbacks have become that guy, that lead horse. We ride the hot back. After he hit a couple (against Ohio State), he became the hot back.”
Scott had a career-high 160 yards last week against Ohio State and with another 65 yards he’ll become just the sixth sophomore at Michigan State to run for 1,000 yards.
The output against the Buckeyes was expected for the Ohio native, but Scott and the offensive line have been putting it all together for several weeks now, something it hopes to do again this week and ride some momentum into the off-season.
“Everything takes time,” Scott said. “Obviously things didn’t go as planned for us and we wish we would have come together more at the beginning of year than toward the end, but we were young. It takes time and we still got another game left to send the seniors out with the victory and make a name for the 2017 season.”
Penn State, of course, will be doing whatever it can to slow down Scott and the Michigan State running attack, one that gained 207 yards against the Buckeyes and 217 in a loss to Michigan, two of the top-three teams in the nation.
But stopping the Spartans on the ground has always been the game plan, Penn State coach James Franklin says.
“They’ve always been great up front,” Franklin said. “I think that’s kind of how that program has been built with the D-line, with the O-line. I think the thing that’s different right now is the running back. He was a great player last year. I think they were getting that offensive line to kind of grow and mature early on this season.
“Right now he is running, and running hard. They do a lot of stuff in terms of run game, then play-action pass, a lot of misdirection stuff with fake reverses, fake fly sweeps to try to cause some indecision at the linebacker unit.”
Penn State has had its issues stopping the run at various times this season and ranks seventh in the Big Ten, allowing 149.9 yards a game.
The Nittany Lions gave up 341 rushing yards in a loss to Pittsburgh early in the season and 326 in its loss to Michigan. They also allowed Minnesota to gain 228 yards while Maryland gained 170 yards and Ohio State picked up 168.
“The biggest thing is your D-line is going to have to challenge their O-line at the point of attack,” Franklin said. “We can’t get knocked back, which we got knocked back last year. Then we’ve got to be able to get the running back on the ground. He’s a big, strong back that can make you miss. Him and Saquon (Barkley) I think in some ways have some similarities. It’s going to be a real challenge for us.”