By: Thomas Frank Carr
The Nittany Lions enter their final regular season game of the year versus Michigan State on Saturday. The Penn State faithful are hopeful for another win to close out the regular season; the eight straight. To get there, here are the Five Things To Watch for.
- Everybody Knows
Everyone knows what is at stake for the Nittany Lions at noon today. If Ohio State wins versus Michigan, Penn State controls its own destiny in the Big 10 East. They will just have to close out against a 3-8 Michigan State team that still has fight in it, despite their record and the Nittany Lions will be in the Big 10 Championship game.
It’s also senior day for a very important group of players. These seniors being recognized this year were in the freshman class of 2012 that stuck with the program despite unprecedented sanctions against the program. Head Coach James Franklin knows the significance of this group.
“I think Penn State will remember those guys forever. …They’re special guys. I think they’re going to be remembered as the class that really kind of held this place together and also left out of here by making sure the program was headed in the right direction before they walked out the door.”
Franklin also joked that it could make them some money,
“Their five years, they ought to get together and write a book because they’ve seen a lot in a short period of time and have overcome adversity and stuck together”
There’s a lot of emotion before this game. Whatever the outcome of the game between Ohio State and Michigan, and the senior class that will go down in history, emotions will be running high. There will be north of 200 lettermen at the game according to Franklin’s twitter account. Handling that and channeling that emotion will be key for the Nittany Lions. Luckily they have experience doing that.
- Same Plan Different Day
Sparty is much like every other Big 10 team that Penn State has faced this year; built on the running game, struggles to throw the ball. While this formula has worked in the past for Mark Dantonio, he’s had an unprecedented run of quality quarterbacks in his tenure in East Lansing. From Brian Hoyer, to Kirk Cousins, to Connor Cook, the recent list is impressive. The problem this year has been that Tyler O’Connor is not on the same level as those name.
O’Connor has really struggled this year to say the least. He doesn’t show the accuracy, poise and decision making that are hallmarks of a good quarterback. Add to that a derth of talent in the passing game outside of TE Josiah Price and that leads one of the big reasons for a 3-8 Michigan State record.
The game plan for the Nittany Lions will the same has it has been versus every team save Indiana and Purdue; stop the run, make them beat you through the air.
- Great Scott
Yeah the title is cheesy but the sentiment is true. The reason that Michigan State blew out Rutgers and put up a fight against Ohio State is that sophomore runningback LJ Scott has been playing terrifically as of late. The offensive line in front of him has been playing incredibly well as of late too. Franklin knows that this will be the key to Saturday,
“They’ve always been great up front. 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.”
Scott is a big back at 230 pounds. While he’s not Saquon Barkley in terms of speed, he has enough elusiveness and speed to be deadly. The Nittany Lions have done a great job of getting to backs before they get going this year. Last week they had 11 tackles for loss. Granted that was against Temple, but the fact still remains that Penn State has been beating teams with waves of speed on the defensive line. There is no reason that trend won’t continue today.
- What’s wrong with Michigan State?
One of the biggest mysteries this year has been the sudden and drastic fall-off of Sparty this year. As with most things, there is more than one reason for their 3-8 record.
“They’re choosing to play some younger players. Play a bunch of guys both ways. They got O-linemen playing D-line. Freshmen DBs playing wide receiver, going both directions. It’s a challenge. We kind of went into that as well this year with a challenge, a question mark at that position. Very proud of Coach [Sean] Spencer, the D-linemen, how they’ve matured and played.”
Injuries and under-performance of upper classmen have led to the decision of playing freshmen and redshirt freshmen along the defensive line. Franklin knows that challenge though in his three years at Penn State. Even this year, the Nittany Lions were forced to play a slew of very young players along the defensive line. We all saw the struggle of a young line maturing over the course of a season. It just goes to show how easily this year could have turned out very differently for Penn State.
- No More Questions
There were so many questions about this Penn State football team heading into the year. How will the new offense work? How will Trace McSorley perform? Will Brent Pry be able to match what Bob Shoop did in his two years at Penn State? There were so many more as well.
It may have gotten off to a rough start, but the Nittany Lions were able to answer all of those questions with resounding answers. The eight game winning streak they went on was unexpected and a genuine pleasure to watch.
It was also fraught with adversity due to injury at key positions. Yet Penn State met every challenge thrown at them this year and responded. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the Penn State football team, they believe in themselves. That will serve them well in the post-season, where we’ll surely have five more things to watch for.