EAST LANSING, Mich. — In the final game of the regular season, the same problems that have plagued Penn State all season cost the Nittany Lions another winnable game.
The Nittany Lions had an almost non-existent running game just as they did at Iowa, struggled in short yardage situations that were reminiscent of the overtime failures against Illinois, failed to stop Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker in a similar manner as they did Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson and could not get one final score to get across the finish line in a sequence reminiscent to the end of the Michigan loss.
All wrapped together, it led to a 30-27 loss in blizzard conditions at Spartan Stadium, the final nail in the coffin of a regular season that started with playoff aspirations and cratered to a disappointing 7-5 finish.
Michigan State jumped right on Penn State from the opening bell, scoring a touchdown on the opening possession of the game. Kenneth Walker III finished off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run, and he was off to the races as soon as the Spartans got the ball back.
After Penn State elected to punt on fourth-and-inches and Jordan Stout pinned Michigan State at its own 1-yard line, Walker immediately broke loose for a 35-yard gain that erased the field position advantage. It ended up being a 9-play, 99-yard drive for Michigan State to double the lead in the first quarter.
The Spartans entered the game dead last among all 130 FBS teams in passing yards allowed, and quarterback Sean Clifford started to take advantage late in the first quarter. The Nittany Lions went on back-to-back touchdown drives behind Clifford’s right arm, ending in a pair of touchdown passes to Jahan Dotson. Both scores came on pass plays over the top where the senior receiver slipped behind the secondary, first from 27 yards out late in the first quarter and then again from 30 yards out late in the second quarter.
Those two plays accounted for over a third of Dotson’s 114 receiving yards for the game, and were the two biggest chunks of Clifford’s 313 yards for the game.
As the snow piled up during halftime and the conditions worsened, the Nittany Lions briefly gained some traction early in the second half. Cornerback Daequan Hardy grabbed his second career interception and turned it into his first career touchdown with a 17-yard pick six on Michigan State’s first possession of the third quarter.
Penn State was on a 20-3 run and had sucked some of the air out of a fervent crowd, but Michigan State did what Penn State has not been able to at any point this season.
It ran its way back into the game.
Michigan State re-claimed a lead it never relinquished with its longest touchdown drive of the season both in plays and time, a 15-play, 75-yard march that ate 8:53 off the clock. Walker started it off with a 27-yard run and Elijah Collins spelled him for 13 more across three carries. A critical third down pass interference penalty on Joey Porter Jr. extended the drive, and quarterback Payton Thorne powered forward on a 1-yard sneak to make it 23-20 Spartans.
Penn State’s next two drives were both case studies in its short yardage failures all season. James Franklin elected not to kick a field goal in tough conditions and kept his offense on the field on a fourth-and-1 from the Michigan State 16, but Keyvone Lee. was met in the backfield and stopped short of the sticks.
One possession later, a failure to convert on second-and-1 led to a Lee fumble on third-and-1 that set the Spartans up in plus territory. Michigan State was also forced to attempt a fourth down to issues in the kicking game, but what it did on the opportunity defined the game.
On fourth-and-15 from the Penn State 20, Thorne threw a perfect ball into the right corner of the end zone for Jayden Reed, who came down with the reception to make it 30-20 Michigan State.
Clifford led Penn State on one last-gasp drive that included a fourth-and-23 conversion to tight end Brenton Strange, but by the time he found Parker Washington in the end zone for a 15-yard score there were only 43 ticks left on the clock.
Michigan State managed to corral the onside kick and ran out the clock to complete a 10-2 regular season, while Penn State suffered its fifth loss of the season and finished the regular season 2-3 away from Beaver Stadium.