(11) Michigan State Spartans (-13.5) at Penn State Nittany Lions
This Saturday, two teams trending in very different directions will close out their regular seasons, as the No. 11 Michigan State Spartans (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) travel to Beaver Stadium to face the Penn State Nittany Lions (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten).
Last weekend, Penn State was upset by Illinois, 16-14, failing to cover as 6.5-point favorites. That game put an end to the Nittany Lions’ modest two-game winning streak and dropped their conference record to 2-5. As predicted, Penn State relied heavily on the ground game against the Illini. (Even though Penn State has one of the worst rushing games in the country, the Illini defense was ranked last in the nation against the run.)
Penn State had some success on the ground, putting up 172 yards, but couldn’t supplement the run-game with the pass; quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed just 50% of his passes (8 of 16) and was held to 93 yards. It was the latest in a string of disappointing outings from the sophomore QB (who had looked so promising during his freshman year): Hackenberg hasn’t completed more than 50% of his passes in any of Penn State’s last four.
As it has been for most of the season, the Penn State defense was a bright spot last Saturday, keeping the Illini to just 283 total yards (70 yards below their season average). But the unit had some trouble stopping QB Reilly O’Toole after he replaced an ineffective Wes Lunt part way through the game. O’Toole went 18 of 25 for 157 yards and a touchdown. He also orchestrated a late seven-play, 54-yard drive which gave the Illini a 36-yard field goal for the win.
While O’Toole played well last weekend, the Penn State defense will face a much tougher task this Saturday when Connor Cook and the Michigan State Spartans come to town. A loss to Ohio State in early November bumped Michigan State from the College Football Playoffs conversation, but the Spartans rebounded well, routing both Maryland (37-15 on the road) and Rutgers (45-3 at home) in their last two, and have climbed back to No. 11 in the CFP rankings.
Cook, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, actually had an off-game against Maryland, completing under 50% of his passes and throwing for 240 yards and no touchdowns. He bounced back against Rutgers, going 16 of 24 for 254 yards and two majors. Cook has protected the ball well all season, throwing just five interceptions (versus 21 TDs) through 11 games, and none in the last four. His 155.3 QBR is 13th in the nation.
And even when Cook has an off day – as he did against Maryland – the Spartans have an excellent ground game to lean on. Led by RB Jeremy Langford, the Spartans are 20th in the country in rushing, averaging 245.5 yards per game. Langford was an absolute work-horse against the Terps, carrying the ball 25 times for 136 yards and two scores. He is currently 21st in the nation in rushing with 1,242 yards. His 17 TDs on the ground are seventh in the FBS.
Making matters worse for the Nittany Lions, the Spartans’ defense is almost as good as their offense. Michigan State is holding opponents to 20.8 points per game (22nd in the country) and have only given up more than 22 points on three occasions. Two of those came against Oregon and Ohio State – the third and fifth best scoring offenses in the nation, respectively. It’s safe to say that the Ducks’ and Buckeyes’ attacks bear no resemblance to that of the Hackenberg-led Nittany Lions.
In all likelihood, it will be up to Hackenberg to keep Penn State competitive on Saturday, though. The Nittany Lions are 116th in the nation in rushing and the Spartans are eighth at stopping the run (allowing a touch over 108 yards per game). If Penn State is going to move the ball, it will have to be through the air.
Recognizing the litany of factors that weigh against Penn State, the Spartans are currently 13.5-point road favorites. If Hackenberg can recreate what he did against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions’ defense is good enough to keep it close. However, Hackenberg’s recent performances don’t inspire any confidence. At 6-5 on the year, the Nittany Lions risk not qualifying for a bowl game if they lose on Saturday.
(Photo credit: Cmcnicoll (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)