November 25, 2010

Preview: Michigan State at Penn State

The Nittany Lions, once again this season, are back on track after a loss. Last week's win over Indiana wasn't the most impressive showing under Joe Paterno, but it was absolutely necessary to set up a fine finish to an obvious reloading season.

This week the No. 11 Michigan State Spartans roll into Happy Valley, with every intention of sending this rivalry out with their first win in Beaver Stadium.

Pregame huddle [1]

Here's your weekly preview and breakdown.

The Michigan State Defense

In a down year for Big Ten defenses, Michigan State's 19 points allowed per game is good enough to rank 3rd best in the league. That's a true assessment of the Spartans' defense, as the total yardage allowed per game (332.5) is 4th in the Big Ten. Through 11 games, this isn't a point in the season where opponents don't know what to expect from a team like Michigan State. On defense, the Spartans don't do anything particularly special, but do everything very well.

Derek Moye makes the catch
Michigan State could have trouble against
Derek Moye and the PSU pass attack.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is in his 4th season at Michigan State, after coming over from Cincinnati with Mark Dantonio. Under Narduzzi, the MSU defense has been dramatically improved, actually becoming a strong suit for the Spartans over the last few seasons, as opposed to the unit when John L. Smith was head coach.

PSU Pass Offense vs. Michigan State

Matt McGloin will start again this week, so Michigan State knows what to expect and what to gameplan for. I highly doubt Rob Bolden will see any time this week, unless Penn State has a three-score lead at any point after the third quarter. Michigan State's pass defense hasn't been anything special this season, ranking 28th nationally against the pass with a 46th pass efficiency rank coming into the regular season finale. Though, Sparty has picked off just as many passes (16) as touchdown passes allowed. Against the only other ball-hawking back seven faced this season (Ohio State), McGloin threw two pick-6's.

Impact Spot: Run/pass balance... Last week against Purdue, Michigan State allowed the Boilermakers to rush and pass for exactly 189 yards, including an early 80-yard touchdown run. It kept Sparty off-balance the rest of the game, as Purdue held a 15-point lead going into the 4th quarter. Penn State will need to open holes along the line, and make sure to give Evan Royster and Silas Redd the right play calls for their skill sets.

Evan Royster big run
The key for Penn State will be to make
every rush count against Michigan State.
PSU Rush Offense vs. Michigan State

Penn State held the ball for nearly 40 minutes last week in the win over Indiana, and will have to do it again this week to keep Michigan State's strong offense off the field. It will start with the ground game for the Nittany Lions, particularly getting the offense into 2nd-and-short yardage situations. Royster, Redd and Stephfon Green should have some space to run on Sparty, with the MSU defense giving up a decent 125 yards per game. Michigan State has held only one opponent--Minnesota--below 100 yards rushing since week 3 against Notre Dame. Every other opponent, even FCS Northern Colorado, was able to break 100 yards. Five of MSU's last 8 opponents have rushed for more than 160 yards.

Impact Spot: Quality, not quantity... Penn State doesn't have to rush 35 or 40 times this week, but it must make every run count. That means getting the offense into situations where it offers a run/pass option, like on 2nd and short. One good run for 8 yards on first down does much more to demoralize a defense than two runs of 4 yards.

The Michigan State Offense

Mark Dantonio runs a very old-school Big Ten offense, with strong running backs and a quarterback under center. This offense doesn't air it out, but can be deadly effective off play-action passes. Sound familiar? Think of the style offense Penn State has run with McGloin. Just like their defense, the Spartans' offense is exactly what the stats show--total offense ranked 4th in the Big Ten, scoring offense ranked 5th. Interesting however, is that Michigan State has lost one more turnover (16) than Penn State (15), including a big pick-6 last week against Purdue that gave the Boilers a 14-3 early lead. But Michigan State starts and ends with its running backs, Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, setting the tone.

Michigan State Pass Offense vs. Penn State

Kirk Cousins isn't as explosive as Denard Robinson, or as scary-efficient as Scott Tolzien. But Cousins is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, if not the nation. He's completing 67 percent of his attempts, with a good 18-9 ratio. The problem with Cousins is that he tends to throw some "WTF" passes, like the pick-6 last week. Penn State's pass defense has been much tighter the last few weeks, even though it hasn't been the tightest unit on the field. Stephon Morris is getting back on the field more, after losing his corner job to Chaz Powell a few weeks ago. After all the turmoil in the secondary--losing Nick Sukay and Andrew Dailey, and Morris losing his job--things seem to have settled down the last few weeks. Penn State ranks 2nd in the Big Ten in pass defense (189 ypg), while Michigan State ranks 5th in pass offense (244 ypg). If PSU can keep MSU around 200 yards passing, the secondary will have done its job. But that depends on something else...

Impact Spot: Rush defense... See below.

Chris Colasanti tackles Mikel Leshoure
To avoid another rush defense debacle,
the defense must tackle well
and hold MSU to short gains on early downs.
Michigan State Rush Offense vs. Penn State

Penn State is going into this game with the opposite catch-22 it faced against Northwestern--focus too much on the run, and the pass will kill you. Tom Bradley said after the Northwestern game that Penn State was too worried about stopping the pass, and got killed with the run. Against Michigan State, Penn State will need to keep seven in the box, but be ready to defend the pass on almost every play. But you can scheme all you want, yet nothing will matter if tackling remains a problem for the Nittany Lions' defense. Even against Indiana, Penn State had trouble stopping the Hoosiers from grinding out that extra yard or two. If that can happen against poor running teams, just imagine what Michigan State will be able to do.

Impact Spot: First and Second downs... Against the teams that torched Penn State on the ground--Alabama, Illinois, Ohio State--PSU allowed big gains on first and second downs. Allowing opponents to have run/pass options on second and third down will not get PSU's defense off the field. A tired defense will not be able to stop Michigan State late in this game.

Special Teams

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Short yardage downs... Penn State's defense really rose to the challenges late against Michigan, Northwestern and even against Indiana. The problem will be if that same PSU defense shows up as the defense which gave up 190 yards to Ohio State's Dan "Boom" Herron.

Matt McGloin
Hopefully the offensive plan will allow
Matt McGloin & Co. to do what they do well. 
Offensive playcalling... Will Penn State let the offense tear it up, as they did against Michigan State in both 2008 and the second half last season?


Penn State has done well against even good Michigan State teams, even better when those games come in Beaver Stadium. Michigan State matches up well with Penn State's individual units, but has a slight advantage in the fact that Sparty is a much more experienced team that knows how to win games. If you want one area that will make you smile on Saturday, look at the penalty situation for both teams. Penn STate is 1st nationally with only 27 penalty yards per game, while Sparty is losing 67 yards per game to penalties, 95th nationally.

This won't be Joe Paterno's planned last game, so don't think it will play significantly into the emotion. But it is senior day, and this group has played a huge part of Penn State's resurgence into the national elite of college football. There are only 17 seniors going into this finale, with only 9 or 10 in the two-deep--Ollie Ogbu, Brett Brackett, Chris Colasanti, Bani Gbadyu, Lou Eliades, Kevion Latham, Evan Royster, Stefen Wisniewski, Collin Wagner, Graham Zug, Doug Klopacz, Tyler Ahrenhold, Andrew Dailey, Kyle Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, Anthony Tortortelli, and David Soldner. Penn State can send them out on a win, and launch a fantastic off-season and a nearly-guaranteed January bowl game.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

*All Photos by Mike/LBU

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