Spartans head to Penn State in search of big-time win

Following its home loss to Northwestern last weekend, Michigan State football faces their toughest road trip of 2018 Saturday afternoon against No. 8 Penn State. MSU was able to steal last year’s matchup against the Nittany Lions, winning 27-24 on a last-second Matt Coghlin field goal.

This year’s PSU team may not be as talented as 2017’s version, which was arguably two drives away from the College Football Playoff a year ago, but quarterback Trace McSorley is leading this year’s charge towards a Big Ten title. McSorley set a school record two weeks against Ohio State with 461 total yards (286 passing and 175 rushing). The senior is completing passes at a slightly lower clip than his career numbers – 52.9 percent in 2018 compared to 66.5 percent last year – but has become an even bigger factor in the run game.

That’s helped PSU head coach James Franklin as it pertains to replacing Saquon Barkley in the running game. Junior Miles Sanders has waited patiently for his turn, and while the talent level isn’t the same Sanders has shown flashes of being a very skilled running back. The Pittsburgh, Pa. running back has six touchdowns in 2018 to go along with 6.2 yards per carry.

PSU wide receiver KJ Hamler is expected to play after being concussed against Ohio State and a week of rest, which could spell trouble for the MSU secondary. Hamler’s speed and elusiveness in the open field is something the Spartans haven’t seen yet. Despite catching just 13 passes in five games, the redshirt freshman has 308 yards and four touchdowns already and is a threat in the return game as well.

Since Franklin’s arrival, the PSU offense has hung its hat on big-play ability, and that is still evident even after former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead took a head coaching job at Mississippi State. Through five games, Penn State has had 31 plays of 20 yards or more, including two plays over 90 yards. They’ve been effective in the red zone as well, scoring points on all 25 of its trips (with 23 touchdowns) inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this year.

That may be a problem with Michigan State’s defense traveling to State College, allowing 10 of 12 red zone trips to opponents to end with points. While the MSU defense is still above-average nationally and is tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions with nine, it let up three long touchdowns to Northwestern last week and now faces an even more skilled QB in McSorley in Beaver Stadium.

The MSU offense has faced its fair share of criticism over the last couple weeks, with head coach Mark Dantonio and offensive coordinator Dave Warner taking most of the heat. MSU has averaged 3.4 yards per carry in 2018 and will have to find a way to create lanes against a defense that had an impressive outing against Ohio State’s tandem of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber two weeks ago. The two combined for 108 yards on 26 carries – a solid day but nothing compared to what the Buckeyes are used to putting up on a weekly basis.

MSU RB LJ Scott’s status is still unclear and is one of a multitude of injuries facing the Spartan offense, with guard David Beedle out for a month with a left arm injury in addition to wide receiver Cody White’s left-hand injury leaving him out indefinitely.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke has completed 64.2 percent of his passes this year, an improved number, but has thrown six interceptions (he had seven in 2017) so far. With more on his shoulders, the junior has had stretches of excellent and inconsistent play and will need a game that resembled last year’s performance (33-56 passing with 400 yards and 2 TDs) to beat a somewhat stingy PSU defense.

Here are the matchups that will decide Saturday’s game:

  • KJ Hamler versus the Spartan defensive backfield

Hamler is among the most explosive players in the Big Ten, with speed to burn and playmaking ability in the open field – two qualities that are tough to stop by any defense in the country. He’s not a downfield guy – he stands 5-foot-9 – but he averages 24 yards per catch by what he can do with the ball in his hands. If MSU can limit the damage Hamler does on the perimeter on screens and slants, there is a chance they can “limit” the PSU offense in the same way they did last year.

  • Finding Felton Davis

When Lewerke can find wide receiver Felton Davis, good things happen for the Spartan offense. That’s obvious. The key for Warner and company: continuing to adjust in-game and find ways to involve Davis once he gets double-teamed later in the game. PSU CB Amari Oruwariye could be matched up with Davis and has two interceptions this year, but if Lewerke has time to throw and is accurate enough, Davis is skilled enough to beat most of the corners he lines up against in the regular season.

  • MSU’s offensive line generating space

If there is a way into this game for Michigan State, it’s in the rushing game on both sides, but most importantly on offense. McSorley has put up two big games on the ground in PSU’s last two games but isn’t fast enough to outrun the whole Spartan defense. If a shuffled MSU offensive line can move the PSU defense around up front (that’s a big if) Warner’s play-calling can only do so much harm.