Last game of the year, Brent. Can’t hold anything back now.
All Waterboy quotes aside, the last game of the regular season is an important one for Penn State. Sure, the Nittany Lions have been out of the Big 10 championship picture for a while, but 8-4 would look a lot better than 7-5, and it would be important to end the regular season by beating a ranked team on the road and in a rivalry game.
As with any game, there are some things the Nittany Lions have working for them and some against them. Here is what those things are leading up to the regular-season finale.
WHAT THE NITTANY LIONS HAVE GOING FOR THEM
Statistically, Michigan State has the worst pass defense in major college football.
Not just the worst in the Big 10. Not just the worst in Power 5. The worst anywhere in FBS, and that includes UConn. Sparty is 130th of 130 teams against the pass.
Penn State has one of the best receivers in the country in Jahan Dotson, and its quarterback, Sean Clifford, appears to be ready to go after last week’s flu debacle. It’s easy to picture Clifford and Dotson having their way with Michigan State’s poor pass coverage. If the Spartans find a way to limit Dawson, Clifford can also use that to his advantage by throwing the ball to Parker Washington more often. For an offense that’s had most of its success through the air, the 130th ranked pass defense should be a good setup.
On the other side of the ball, Penn State defense will face quite a test in Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker. But Walker is not at 100 percent. He’s had a nagging ankle injury and had to leave the Spartans’ 56-7 loss at Ohio State after just six carriers. Walker’s not the only wounded Spartan, either. Michigan State’s two top receivers– Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor– are banged up as well.
Penn State has the nation’s fourth-ranked scoring defense and has held in own in all 11 games. Playing an offense that’s best weapons aren’t at 100 percent might bode well.
WHAT THE NITTANY LIONS HAVE GOING AGAINST THEM
Some feel that Michigan State will be demoralized from The Columbus Massacre. I don’t see it.
The Spartans still have a shot at the Rose Bowl, and although that should be reason enough to be motivated, Sparty will also be playing not to make the school look bad for extending Mel Tucker. I’m not sure if Penn State gets the best version of Michigan State because of Sparty’s injuries, but if Michigan State loses, lack of focus/effort won’t be a reason.
I have little doubt that Penn State will move the ball against Michigan State, but the offense never seems to make things easy.
It moved the ball just fine against Michigan– even with Sean Clifford getting sacked seven times. The issue against the Wolverines was that Penn State couldn’t finish. Even with the sacks, the Nittany Lions had a respectable 332 yards but only scored one touchdown. That’s because Penn State consistently stalled deep in Michigan territory, only punching it in once in four trips to the red zone. Michigan State’s red zone defense is similar to Michigan’s (64th vs. 61st), so not finishing drives is a concern.
As is Kenneth Walker. Even not entirely healthy, if Walker plays, he can be a problem. He is the best running back in the country, and players of that caliber can have big games even when they aren’t physically at their best.
Penn State is finally getting healthy. Michigan State is beaten up.
To me, that’s what it comes down to. In November, health plays an even more prominent role in a football game than it does earlier in the season since there’s more room for injury in the time between.
With two teams that are evenly matched on paper, the one with fewer bruises has the advantage. For this reason, I like Penn State in what would be a massive win for the program. The Land Grant Trophy stays in Pennsylvania, and James Franklin’s dry spell against ranked teams ends.