Five Things: Penn State vs Michigan State

By: Thomas Frank Carr
Beat Writer

  1. Fries Out of the Pan, Into the Oven

Penn State’s starting left tackle, Ryan Bates will likely not play versus Michigan State this week after exiting the game vs Ohio State in the third quarter. It’s not fair to single him out, but the play of his replacement Will Fries will go a long way to determining how the day goes for the Nittany Lions offense. Of course, Franklin did not commit to anything but feels good about the situation,

“We haven’t determined that we’re replacing anybody yet. But, yeah, we have options,” Franklin said.

Franklin mentioned several possible players at that position including current right guard, and former tackle Brendan Mahon, as well as current right tackle Chasz Wright.

The reality is that those changes are unlikely because,

A) Fries is a natural left tackle

B) It would force a major shakeup on the line that would be unnecessary.

Michigan State features a defensive line that is stout in the middle with sophomore defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. One thing that Sparty has been unable to find is a pass rusher with enough pop to challenge the edge on a consistent basis since Shilique Calhoun graduated two years ago.

The freshman Fries struggled last Saturday when facing a veteran defensive line with speed and explosion to the edge. This week is a more manageable challenge on the outside from a pass protection standpoint. What he has to prove Saturday is that he can get push in the running game. He’s a young, talented player and if Bates can’t start, he will have a chance to show that he’s a capable long-term replacement if needed.

  1. Decisive

James Franklin did not name him by name, but he did call out his Heisman front-running tailback Saquon Barkley for trying to do too much,

“Whether it’s an RPO, we should have pulled it and threw the ball rather than handed it off, or whether it’s not trying to turn every run into an 80-yard run, only getting two yards. We have to get better in that area.”

Franklin actually mentioned this twice during his weekly press conference, un-prompted. Many fans will blame the offensive line for not opening up holes for the junior tailback. While that is certainly a big part of the problem, Barley compounds this issue by trying to turn every run outside and break open the game, as Franklin mentioned.

While it’s a more complicated and longer process to fix the offensive line issues, it’s a simple fix for Barkley; run up-field. He’s too talented of a back to be putting himself in bad situations by dancing in the backfield. Two yard runs aren’t sexy, but they help keep an offense on schedule and show maturity from a tailback.

On the flip side, Franklin also wants to see his quarterback get involved in the running game more.

“I also think we’re at our best on offense when Trace McSorley is running the ball, as well. It just gives them one more thing they have to deal with.” McSorley had some good runs vs Michigan that gashed the defense late in the game when they were busy stopping Barkley. When involved in the running game he provides a balance that can keep the offense on schedule.

  1. Follow the Guards

If you’ve never done this before, take you eye off the ball when watching a football game. Much of what determines the success or failure of a play happens long before the ball or the ball-carrier reaches that point. Some of the most fascinating positions to watch are along the offensive line.

Michigan State in particular likes to run ‘power’ plays. These are plays where they will pull lineman from the opposite side of the line and try to power the ball through a certain spot of the defensive line. (You’ve seen the big guys get out in front of tailbacks before). For a defense, this is typically a dead giveaway as to where the offense is going with the ball.

The Penn State defense has been brilliant for most of the season on stuffing traditional running teams that play football this way (think Pitt and Michigan). Jason Cabinda in particular thrives when he can read his keys and attack the line of scrimmage.

“You can anticipate. I think when you’re playing defense and you’re able to anticipate what’s coming, that’s when big plays happen. It’s important. That’s really where film study comes in and things like that. That’s when you’re able to recognize those things.”

Cabinda can’t get to the ball carrier, unless is defensive line is able to hold up at the point of attack. Michigan State has one of the better units that Penn State will face this year and they will try to wear down the Nittany Lions defense like Ohio State did last week. Having success on early downs is key to keeping Michigan State in check.

  1. Make Him Lewerke

The Spartans come into this game 6-2, with their typical team DNA,

“They’re going to run the power, the counter, the pin and pull, and the zone play. A lot of play-action pass. Boots, nakeds, dropback. I think the thing that’s making them go is their quarterback, (Brian) Lewerke. He’s a pro style quarterback, but has the ability to beat you with his feet, has made a bunch of big plays there,” Franklin said.

Containing the quarterback in the pocket will be just as important this week as it was last week vs J.T. Barrett. Brian Lewerke is not an accomplished passer to this point in his career, nor does he have the weapons that Barrett has. Keeping him in the pocket and making him beat you with his arm is the best game plan for the Nittany Lions defense.

The Spartans have had a fumble problem on offense this year as well, putting the ball on the turf 23 times and losing 10 of them.  Lewerke will make mistakes in the passing game as well. There will be plenty of chances for an opportunistic Penn State defense to cash in this week.

  1. Look the Part

“The best thing that Penn State can do is blow people out.” – Kirk Herbstreit on the College Football Playoff chances of the Nittany Lioins.

Not many people that follow college football are giving James Franklin and his team much of a chance to recover from their one point loss to Ohio State last weekend. Here is why;

After the Nittany Lions play Michigan State on Saturday, their final opponents have a combined record of 11-13 going into this week. Without a win that really counts down the stretch, and Ohio State having to play Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan the rest of the way, Penn State does not have a chance to recover from their late-season loss to the Buckeyes.

Yet they could still have a chance to make the playoff. Ohio State outscored Maryland, Nebraska and Rutgers 174-28 in a three week span this past October. After this game on Saturday, Penn State will play those three teams to close out the regular season.  If Penn State could put up similar numbers and have teams ahead of them struggle, they would have a chance.

However slim a chance they have, the Nittany Lions must look impressive for the remainder of the year. That starts today vs Michigan State.