— Story by PSU Insider Brian Tripp @
#7 Penn State Nittany Lions (9-2, 7-1) vs. Michigan State Spartans (3-8, 1-7)
3:30 PM – University Park, PA – Beaver Stadium
Television: ESPN (Bob Wischusen, Brock Huard, Allison Williams)
Spread: Penn State (-12) O/U (55)
About Michigan State:
Head Coach – Mark Dantonio (10th year at MSU, 90-41)
Last Game – L 17-16 vs. #2 Ohio State
Key Players – RB LJ Scott (SO), WR R.J. Shelton (SR), TE Josiah Price (SR), RT Kodi Kieler (SR), LB Riley Bullough (SR), LB Chris Frey (JR), FS Demetrious Cox (SR), BS Montae Nicholson (JR), CB Darian Hicks (SR)
It’s been an unexpectedly difficult season for Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans. After capturing the Big Ten title last season and participating in the second-ever College Football Playoff, most anticipated the Spartans would overcome the loss of 14 starters and compete for another league title. However, youth and injuries have forced Michigan State to use a different starting lineup in every game this season on both offense and defense and 25 players have either started for the first time or are in their first full-time starting role.
Still, don’t overlook the Spartans. Michigan State has won 10 of its last 16 games played against ranked foes and is 6-4 against teams ranked in The AP Top 10 since 2013. The Spartans have played better down the stretch, despite going 1-3 over their last four games. The team’s three losses are by a combined 14 points, which includes games against Michigan and Ohio State. Two weeks ago, Michigan State picked up its only conference win with a 49-0 trouncing of lowly Rutgers. In fact, Dantonio’s teams traditionally play their best in November, with the Spartans going 25-9 in his tenure during the regular season’s final month.
Michigan State ranks near the middle of the Big Ten almost all major offensive and defensive statistics. The Spartans’ offense is scoring 25.2 points per game, while averaging 178.5 yards rushing and 221.3 yards passing. On defense, Michigan State is allowing 355.9 yards per game and 26.2 points per game. The Spartans have struggled in the red zone, ranking 98th nationally in red zone offense and 116th nationally in red zone defense. Additionally, Michigan State is the most penalized team in the Big Ten and has accumulated the fewest sacks in the conference.
The success of the Spartans’ offense relies heavily on sophomore running back LJ Scott. Scott needs just 65 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the season and posted career highs in rushing yards (160), all-purpose yards (236) and receiving yards (76) against Ohio State last Saturday. As a team, Michigan State has amassed more than 200 yards rushing in four of the last five games. Senior R.J. Shelton leads the offense in receptions, receiving yards and all-purpose yards. Additionally, Shelton has accumulated 20 plays of 20 yards or more and has four plays of 50-plus yards this season. Three different quarterbacks have seen action, but Tyler O’Connor has started 9 games, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 185 yards per game and has 16 touchdown passes and 9 interceptions. Dantonio said Damion Terry could see an expanded role at quarterback in the season finale.
Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Riley Bullough anchors the Spartans’ defense, leading MSU in tackles per game but missed three games earlier this season with an injury. With 11 tackles against Ohio State, he became the fourth member of his family with 200 career tackles as a Spartan. The defense held Ohio State to season lows in points and total offense last weekend and has held opponents to under 100 yards passing in back-to-back games. Three freshmen and two sophomores earned starts against the Buckeyes on defense with a total of nine first-time starters making starts on defense this season. Other standouts include leading tackler and linebacker Chris Frey, safeties Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox and defensive end Malik McDowell. McDowell, a projected first-round NFL pick, has battled injuries this season and was not listed on this week’s depth chart.
– Saturday’s game marks the 31st all-time meeting between Penn State and Michigan State.
– Michigan State leads the series, 15-14-1, and has won four straight games in the series.
– Michigan State clinched the Big Ten East Division title with a 55-16 win last season in East Lansing. Michigan State won convincingly, 34-10, in the teams’ last meeting in Happy Valley.
– Penn State’s last win against the Spartans was in 2009, 42-14, at Michigan State.
– The Nittany Lions clinched the 2008 Big Ten Championship with a 49-18 win on a frigid afternoon at Beaver Stadium, the last home win for Penn State in the series.
– The teams are competing for the Land Grant Trophy, which was introduced in 1993 when the teams resumed the series as a part of Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten.
Stat of the Week:
How unexpected was this season for Michigan State? Well, the Spartans are the only program in the nation to finish in the top six of the AP Poll the last three seasons, appeared in a school-record nine consecutive bowl games and has won 41 of its last 54 games. Additionally, 26 Spartans have been chosen in the NFL Draft under Dantonio’s watch, including three-straight first round picks.