Ellis: MSU defense faces tall task against Barkley, Penn State

After a heartbreaking three-overtime loss last weekend to Northwestern snapped Michigan State’s four-game winning streak, the Spartans (6-2, 4-1, No. 24 CFP) will need to be ready for a battle with Penn State (7-1, 4-1, No. 7 CFP). The Nittany Lions are coming off a one-point loss to Ohio State, in which they coughed up a 15-point fourth quarter lead before ultimately losing in a thriller, 39-38.

Penn State comes into the meeting boasting one of the deadlier offensive units in the country. The Nittany Lions are scoring 39.8 points per game, 14th-best in the nation. They ride on their powerful and Heisman front-runner tailback Saquon Barkley. Barkley is averaging 100.1 yards per game on the ground, third-best in the Big Ten, and averages a Big Ten-best 206.3 all-purpose yards per game.

“He’s a great running back, but we’ve played some other great backs this season,” Dantonio said. “He’s a great player, but if you want to win a football game, you have to shut down great players.”

Barkley isn’t the only weapon the Lions have in their arsenal, however. Led by junior quarterback Trace McSorley, third in the conference in passing yards, with 258.9 per game, PSU has a lethal aerial attack, accounting for 277.6 yards per game, which is second-best in the conference.

“We learned from last year that he [McSorley] is a complete quarterback, his ability to throw down field, to throw the short pass, his ability to gain more yardage and being able to run and be savvy,” defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said. “That’s what we understand and that’s what he is, we understand he’s a complete quarterback.”

6-foot-6, 250-pound senior tight end Mike Gesicki is the ultimate mismatch for any defense. Gesicki led the Lions last weekend with 57 yards on six catches, and is third in the Big Ten in tight end receiving yards with 285 on the season.

“He’s [Gesicki] a mismatch guy. The thing that I think he does extremely well, he’s a big vertical threat,” Dantonio said. “He’s very difficult in that capacity, but we’re going to have to defend him.”

The Nittany Lions have several other playmakers on the outside including senior and all-time receptions leader at PSU, DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson, who had the game-winning score against Iowa back in week four.

“Number five [Hamilton] in the slot is a very good receiver, so you know they’re going to take shots down field,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “They’re very dynamic, they like explosive plays, so our goal is going to be to contain that.”

The Spartans will need a big effort from the run game, as the Buckeyes gashed the Nittany Lion defense for 201 yards on the ground last week. With Lewerke leading the rushing again last week with 30 yards, LJ Scott and co. will need to be playmakers out of the backfield against a very stingy PSU defense, which allows just 13.3 points per game, second best in the conference.

“Opportunities are still in front of us,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “This is a difficult challenge coming up, Penn State has an excellent football team.”

MSU is coming off their best passing performance of the season, with quarterback Brian Lewerke throwing for a school record 445 yards and four touchdowns. Freshman Cody White continued his impressive play, leading the Spartan receivers with 165 yards on just 9 catches, and two touchdowns on the day.

“I’m learning and am starting to step up more every week,” White said. “I expect them [PSU] to be a fast and big-hitting group.”

With both teams losing this past weekend, PSU and MSU are both tied for second in the Big Ten East division at 4-1. This game holds divisional implications as well as College Football Playoff implications, quite possibly for both teams.

Penn State will need to win out the rest of the way to even have an outside shot at the CFP as a one-loss, non-Big Ten champ, while the Spartans are largely in control of their own Big Ten East destiny, playing PSU on Saturday and look to leapfrog Ohio State in the division the following weekend.

The two teams will meet in their 32nd matchup, with the series tied at 15-15-1. Kickoff is set for noon at Spartan Stadium and will be televised on FOX.