In the Big Ten East, you can never let one loss turn into two. No. 7 Penn State, who’s bouncing off a 39-38 heartbreaker to Ohio State, will travel to East Lansing to fight No. 24 Michigan State, who’s emerging from a 39-31 triple-overtime loss against Northwestern.
Both teams are down, and both need to get up. Who has the edge? Let’s see what the stats say.
It seems like a cliché at this point to say that stopping Penn State means stopping Saquon Barkley. But there’s a reason for it. Barkley is an undisputed Heisman candidate and heralded by many as the best running back in the nation.
Barkley has rushed for at least 1000 yards in his first two years as a Nittany Lion. Barring an injury, he’ll easily surpass that milestone once more, stockpiling about 800 yards in eight games. He averages an eye-popping 5.8 yards per carry and blows the Big Ten away with 1650 all-purpose yards.
In high school, Barkley ran a 40-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds. This time is faster than NFL superstars Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. Barkley’s agility combined with unmatched patience, vision and change of speed make him an outright nightmare to defend.
MSU typically stops the run well. Last week, the Spartan defense led by Joe Bachie, who has 71 tackles on the year, held the great Justin Jackson of Northwestern to just 41 yards. Earlier this year, they stuffed Iowa’s Akrum Wadley to 30 yards. The Spartan defense is menacing up front, but the Nittany Lions offer a different test. Dantonio has faced some fantastic running backs in his tenure including Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry, but none are as dynamic as Barkley.
With Barkley’s dominance, it’s easy to forget that Penn State also throws the ball well. In fact, they throw it extremely well.
Trace McSorley has the second-most total yards in the Big Ten with 2071 in the air and 303 more on the ground. He’s a tough kid, unafraid to take hits with an excellent pocket presence. He often spreads the ball around, but has found a couple preferred targets in Daesean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson who have 494 and 362 yards on the year respectively. Hamilton is remarkably effective from deep, averaging 17 yards per reception.
McSorley also utilizes Barkley as a receiving threat. Barkley has 471 receiving yards, the second most on the team. He’s traumatic to defend on screens and occasionally burns defensive backs on the deep wheel route. Tight end Mike Gesicki is also a major McSorley target especially in the red zone and short-yardage situations with 285 yards this year.
Michigan State’s defense will likely stack the box on Barkley, which means that corners Josiah Scott and Justin Layne will have to guard well in one-on-one coverage. Scott especially has impressed as a true freshman with a team-leading six pass break-ups and seven pass deflections complemented by an interception. But matching up with players like Barkley and Gesicki is much more complicated. Barkley’s athleticism is probably unparalleled by any MSU defender, while Gesicki’s size at 6’6” and 249 pounds makes him practically impossible to guard.
Against an offense that averages nearly 40 points per game, the Spartans need to be prepared for a potential shootout. Luckily for them, Brian Lewerke has displayed the capability to air the ball out when down. Lewerke’s two biggest games were in MSU’s two losses with a combined 871 total yards.
Lewerke’s biggest targets so far have been Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart Jr., who have 405 and 362 yards respectively. But lately, true freshman wideout Cody White has exploded on the scene with 99 yards two weeks ago against Indiana followed by a 165-yard spectacle against Northwestern.
But Penn State, who is No. 7 in the nation with 13.3 points allowed per games, has been surprisingly efficient on defense. Senior corners Christian Campbell and Grant Haley lead an experienced backfield who combine for 35 pass deflections/broken up passes on the year.
MSU’s rush offense has been anything but consistent this year. LJ Scott figures to be the feature back, but only topped 100 rushing yards once. He had a breakout 2017 performance with 194 yards against Minnesota, tailed by 87 yards the next week against Indiana, but followed it with a vile 16 yard-performance against Northwestern.
Scott has had many bad days running the ball, but a few good days. The Spartans better hope that Saturday represents the latter, because running the football is likely their best shot against the Nittany Lions. Linebackers Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen are the only two players in PSU’s front seven to have topped 40 tackles this year.
On paper, Penn State has the advantage over Michigan State in nearly every facet. But you just never know about the Spartans. Their two losses had a combined five turnovers and a whopping 181 yards allowed in penalties. If the Spartans clean things up, who knows what could happen. In any case, look for this game to be a hard-fought scuffle as both teams desperately look to regain their balance after last week’s losses.