State College, Pa. — Michigan State felt it had been building momentum the final three weeks of the regular season and expected to head into Happy Valley and keep No. 8 Penn State from marching toward a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
For the first half on Saturday, the Spartans did that.
Then, like it has many times this season, everything unraveled in the second half, only this time Michigan State looked powerless to stop it as Penn State exploded for 21 third-quarter points on its way to a 45-12 victory in front of 97,418 at Beaver Stadium.
“Disappointing outcome to a disappointing season,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I thought we played very well in the first half, especially the first quarter. We came out and sort of established ourselves early on, drove down field four straight times and had to settle for field goals. I don’t even think we punted in the first half. Played very well defensively early on as well. In the third quarter, things sort of turned, I guess. It was all Penn State in the second half.
“So a disappointing season. A disappointing end here, but we’ll rally back.”
Penn State (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) will take on Wisconsin next week in the conference title game with a chance to win its first Big Ten title since 2008. It will do so thanks to the play of quarterback Trace McSorley, who was 17-for-23 for a career-high 376 yards and four touchdowns.
“Their quarterback does a nice job creating,” Dantonio said. “McSorley does a nice job doing that. We needed to keep him from creating plays. We had to capture him rather than just go after him. But that’s the difference with Penn State this year as opposed to last year.”
While Penn State prepares to play next week, Michigan State heads into the most uncertain offseason in coach Mark Dantonio’s 10 seasons. It will miss a bowl game for the first time in that span and uncertainty rules heading into the winter.
Junior Damion Terry got the start at quarterback and the offense moved the ball well. However, the Spartans were forced to kick field goals on every first-half drive as senior kicker Michael Geiger gave Michigan State a 12-10 lead with four field goals and the Spartans outgained the Nittany Lions, 256-125, in the first half.
“Got to score touchdowns in this football game, no question about that,” Dantonio said. “We came up short in that aspect. If you score four touchdowns in the first half, you have 28 points and maybe it’s a different type of game. But we did not play well enough in the second half.”
Michigan State got its offense rolling early, putting together a 12-play drive on its first possession that stalled inside the Penn State 10. The Spartans settled for a 28-yard field goal from Geiger to take a 3-0 lead with 8:13 left in the first quarter. After a three-and-out from the defense, Michigan State took advantage by extending the lead to 6-0 on a 36-yard field goal from Geiger with 2:44 left in the first quarter.
Penn State answered by finally putting things together offensively on the arm of McSorley, who had a key third-down connection with Chris Godwin, which led to a 35-yard field goal from Tyler Davis to cut the Michigan State lead to 6-3 with 13:11 left in the second quarter.
Michigan State scored again on its third drive of the game, this time a 33-yarder from Geiger to extend the Spartans’ lead to 9-3 with 7:17 left in the second quarter. On the same drive, Michigan State lost Terry for the game when he took a hit to the head.
McSorley began to pick apart the Michigan State secondary late in the second quarter before Saquon Barkley put the Nittany Lions ahead, 10-9, with 2:14 left in the first half on a 1-yard touchdown run. The Spartans answered with one final drive, taking 14 plays to go 72 yards but getting stopped at the Penn State 3. Geiger added his fourth field goal — a 21-yarder — with 10 seconds left in the half.
When the second half opened, however, Penn State took control, ignited by the fact it knew a win would send it to Indianapolis next week.
“Definitely gave us a little spark," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "We took that momentum into the second half and were able to build on it.”
After Michigan State went three-and-out and punted for the first time in the game, Penn State wasted little time regaining the lead. In just five plays, the Nittany Lions were back on top, 17-12, after a 34-yard pass from McSorley to Chris Godwin for a touchdown with 11:02 left in the third quarter.
Penn State kept pouring it on, forcing another punt, then hitting the big play once again as McSorley found Gesicki for a 45-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone to give the Nittany Lions a 24-12 lead with 7:03 left in the third quarter.
McSorley connected with Godwin again, this time on a 59-yarder to extend the lead to 31-12 with 2:05 left in the third quarter. Godwin finished with five catches for 135 yards.
Penn State redshirt freshman running back Andre Robinson added two late touchdowns, a 14-yard run and a 40-yard reception, to cap the scoring.
“This is just the beginning,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “The regular season is over and we have the opportunity to keep this family together for a few more weeks and see where it takes us. We’ll enjoy this win for about an hour and then get started on Wisconsin.”