Ohio State might be one of the best couple teams in the country. But the Spartans weren’t even remotely competitive last week. The MSU team I watched in late September and much of October would have put up more of a fight against the Buckeyes. The Spartans of late November just weren't healthy enough to be in their stratosphere. What about Penn State, though?
The problem for MSU is that the Nittany Lions’ defense is the best scoring defense in the Big Ten, allowing just 15.5 points per game. That’s fourth-best nationally. Penn State will give up some yards, though. Where the Nittany Lions have been great is in the red zone, where they’re the best in the league and fourth-best in college football. Even if that stat holds, it’s important that MSU puts together sustained drives to keep their own defense off the field.
The question is whether MSU has enough healthy and capable players on offense to do it. I don’t think the Spartans are going to have either of their top two receivers. That’s a big problem. Because the stress that Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor put on defenses is a big part of why this all worked this season. Defensively, MSU’s hobbled secondary and linebacking corps have to be better than last week. Ohio State was exceptional, but Western Kentucky also would have beaten the Spartans handily last week.
2. Can Penn State’s passing game take advantage of MSU’s pass defense
The short answer is yes. While Penn State’s passing attack isn’t in the same realm as what the Buckeyes throw at you, the perception of the Nittany Lions as some stagnant and struggling offense has been created by two things: One, their weak rushing attack and, secondly, a midseason stretch when their quarterback, Sean Clifford, was either injured or playing through injury. But Clifford, who’s supposedly healthy now (though he had the flu last week), passed for 361 yards in a competitive loss at Ohio State not long ago. Jahan Dotson is the Big Ten’s second-leading receiver behind only Purdue’s David Bell. This isn’t the Penn State offense you might remember from its inept nine-overtime loss to Illinois. The MSU pass defense we’ve seen the last three weeks, especially against Purdue and Ohio State, will get shredded by these Nittany Lions. The Spartans will have to be better or this gets ugly.
3. Tre Mosley and Co., it’s your turn
Two of Mel Tucker’s sayings are in direct conflict with each other: “Next man up” and “It matters who’s in the game.” “Next man up” is a nice thought. Who’s in the game is more important. And an MSU offense without Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor at receiver is a much less potent offense. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Spartans don’t have other capable and intriguing players, none more so than redshirt sophomore Tre Mosley, who has 29 catches for 463 yards and two scores this season. He’s shown signs he’s got the talent to be a go-to target. MSU could use a big game from him against Penn State. There are other young players who’ve shown promising flashes — receivers Montorie Foster and Keon Coleman and tight end Maliq Carr. Someone from this crew will have to play an important role if the Spartans are going to put up enough points to beat the Nittany Lions.
4. Can MSU’s coaches rise to this challenge?
MSU’s freshly minted $95-million head coach and his staff have a difficult chore directly in front of them — to win a game with a lot still at stake (a New Year’s Six bowl bid specifically) when, pound for pound, they probably don’t have the horses. This is a chance for MSU's coaching staff to show its teeth — to have a team that’s lost some confidence ready to fight, to present new wrinkles on both sides of the ball that give the Spartans the advantage of the element of surprise, to devise a script that gives these players a shot to be successful. It might be too much to ask. But for $9.5 million a year, it’s really not.
5. The Spartan Stadium crowd
The temperature is expected to be in the mid-30s at kickoff. It’ll be dark and awful chilly by halftime. Many of the students will be home on Thanksgiving break. A lot of other fans will be away, too. It’s firearms hunting season, which matters to football attendance around here. In other words, a packed Spartans Stadium is unlikely. If the crowd is under 40,000, it’ll feel sparse and deflating. Fans who have tickets and can’t use them — if they care about the program — ought to make sure their tickets are in the hands of someone who can. A small home crowd is worse for the home team than playing on the road. It’ll be interesting to see if MSU fans rally to show their appreciation for a team that’s brought them a great deal of joy this season.
I just can’t picture MSU putting up enough points against Penn State to win this game (which means the Spartans will probably win decisively). If Kenneth Walker is healthy enough to be at his best and Payton Thorne uses his legs to help keep drives alive, maybe the Spartans have enough juice. I just can’t see it.
Make it: Penn State 21, MSU 13
Make it: Penn State 21, MSU 13
Contact Graham Couch at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: MSU football vs. Penn State: Prediction, preview, how to bet
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