Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and special guest Chris Howard break down the weekend games: Michigan vs. Minnesota and Michigan State vs. Penn State. Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State has one of the best run defenses in the nation, however, that will get challenged Saturday against Penn State.
That’s because the Spartans’ defense will be tasked with the responsibility of slowing down one of the best running backs in the nation, Nittany Lions junior Saquon Barkley.
“He’s a great running back,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We played other great running backs. We played him before. I think this is our third year playing against him. So, I think we understand who he is and what he represents, how difficult it is to defend him and everything like that. He’s a great player. You want to win a football game, you have to shut down great players.”
It’s not exactly the easiest thing to do. Barkley is on pace for a third straight 1,000-yard rushing season with 801 yards and nine touchdowns on 138 carries. But he’s much more than that.
Barkley happens to be Penn State’s leading receiver, as well, with 36 catches for 471 yards and three more touchdowns while adding a pair of kickoff returns for scores this season.
Needless to say, No. 24 Michigan State will have its work cut out trying to contain Barkley.
“As a competitor, you look to play against guys like that,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “They are a very explosive offense so you’ve got to try and limit that. … Barkley, obviously, is a very dynamic player so if we can contain that then we’ll be fine.”
While No. 7 Penn State has plenty of offensive weapons — quarterback Trace McSorley and tight end Mike Gesicki among them — Barkley will be the focus.
“He runs in a tailspin, he does have a great lower body, and he is 230 (pounds),” defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said. “That combination of balance, great feet and some width to him — which means some thickness — gains in what he likes to do, being able to run the ball. He has some balance to him and some good lower center of gravity.”
In other words, it’s hard to tackle him, and that’s not something the Spartans are looking forward to after struggling to tackle in space last week in the overtime loss at Northwestern.
In that game, Michigan State was tasked with containing Justin Jackson, a back with many of the same attributes as Barkley. Jackson didn’t hurt Michigan State on the ground, but the Wildcats got him the ball in the passing game and the Spartans had trouble there as Jackson had seven catches for 51 yards.
The Nittany Lions will likely take the same approach with Barkley, who’s had three 100-yard rushing games this season, including 211 yards against Iowa.
“Well, I think they’re going to get him the ball. I don’t think there’s any way you can prevent them from getting him the ball,” Dantonio said. “Maybe on kickoffs you could a little bit. They’re going to get him the ball when they want.
“Big, electrifying guy, breaks tackles. Laterally, very quick, cutback runner, spin runner. Effective player, great player.”
The difficult thing about defending Penn State is the fact it can beat you in different ways.
If Barkley is contained, that doesn’t mean McSorley won’t beat you. The junior has thrown for more than 2,000 yards with 16 touchdowns and has run for 303 yards and eight touchdowns. It’s the type of athletic ability Burton saw when he recruited McSorley at Air Force to be a triple-option quarterback.
“(Running) adds a dimension — it takes the ease off your offensive linemen, it takes the ease off of coaching as far as knowing he can make a play on his own,” Burton said. “That’s an extra element, and that’s what makes Penn State good.”
The goal for the Spartans is to get pressure on McSorley, something they were unable to do last week against Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, who threw for 356 yards and two scores.
“What we have to do is get in his face and get him off his spot,” Burton said. “What we’re seeing now is a little bit more max protection, the way it gives an opportunity for the quarterback to throw the ball. But this is another dynamic now in his ability to run. So, what you gotta be able to do is corral him, but also get him off his spot. That’s a combination of the front and the coverage, and I think we need to continue to be more dynamic in our front and to get the quarterback off his spot.
“But he’s a guy that now is a true capture guy, so you want to corral him up more than just go after him.”
Penn State at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Penn State 7-1, 4-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 6-2, 4-1
Line: Penn State by 9