The #8 Nittany Lions (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) take on the #15 Michigan State Spartans (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) for the vaunted Land Grant Trophy. However, for a change, this game means a whole helluva lot more, as a piece of the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl are at stake. If Penn State wins, a Rose Bowl bid is all but assured.
You all know by now that since joining the Big Ten, Penn State has never lost to Sparty in seven tries at Beaver Stadium. Aren’t such statistics wonderful, albeit meaningless? I could say that I haven’t missed the toilet once while taking a leak at 7:00 AM but what predictive value does that have about future target practice? There are lots of other variables at play, urologically speaking, so we won’t dwell on this singular, sterile, metaphorical statistic (unless you want to). Hell, this Turkey attended the last Beaver Stadium game where Moo U. beat Penn State, on September 25, 1965. The score was 23-0 and Bubba Smith, now 63, terrorized the Nittany Lion backfield for much of the game. What does that have to do with 2008? Nothing, but neither do those seven Penn State wins since 1990.
Point made? This particular “considered in a vacuum intangible” is pure bullshit.
Another manufactured “intangible” is both teams’ presumed blood thirst for possession of the Land Grant Trophy (pictured at left). I mean, look at that ugly mutha. Whoever heard of a trophy with bric-a-brac shelves? Do you think either university actually enjoys having that piece of shit in its trophy case without a sheet draped over it? Hell, if I were playing and my team were to win that scatographically hideous mélange of a mute testament to design by committee, I’d run the other way when it came time to carry the massive, mahogany mounted, misconceived monstrosity across the field. Yea, verily. I hate that junk.
Someone ought to blow it up as a Halloween prank one of these years and be done with it. So much for that “intangible,” but I digress. Sorry, I got carried away; it’s an annual, apoplectic phenomenon.
The compositions of both teams and their performances this year are the only reliable indicators of the outcome of this game, and still there are too many urological variables to assure us of a particular outcome either way. The biggest such variable—and the one least possible to predict—is the human factor. The weather has a bearing on the outcome, too, although this game, being the ill-conceived rivalry game the conference geniuses contrived, is perennially played as the final game of the season in late November, when the weather is always crappy in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Michigan.
So, given that the emphasis of the Michigan State attack is on its supremely talented running back, Javon Ringer, ranked #3 nationally, and obviously, Penn State’s defensive emphasis will be on stopping him, it is instructive to break down the performance of the big D against Big Ten running backs this season. Here they are.
- Illinois: #71 Daniel Dufrene, 14 carries, 96 yds, 0 TD, long carry 30
- Purdue: #29 Kory Sheets, 18, 59, 1, 19
- Wisconsin: #38 P.J. Hill, 15, 58, 0, 15
- Michigan: Brandon Minor, 23, 117, 2, 36
- OSU: Beanie Wells, 22, 55, 0, 8
- Iowa: #2 Shonn Greene, 28, 117, 2, 14
- Indiana: Marcus Thigpen, 8, 72, 1, 57
The only non-conference opponent worth mentioning is Oregon State, so let’s add them to the mix.
- Oregon State: #9 Jacquizz Rodgers, 22, 99, 2, 13
In games in which their top running back was able to gain 96 yards or more, opponents scored an average of 19.7 points. In other games listed above, opponents scored an average of 6.5 points. Accordingly, with the Penn State offense sputtering, the task of shutting down Ringer is of paramount importance.
It is late in the season and an already depleted defensive line is banged up. The linebacker(s) need help. I mean, there really is only one guy I’d call a real linebacker, that being Navorro Bowman. Reports from practice have revealed that Mark Rubin is being drilled as effectively a fourth linebacker in hopes of beefing up the linebacking corps in its all-important quest to keep Ringer under control.
However, if Penn State wants to play eight in the box, Moo U. can beat them with the pass, so selling out to impede Ringer is not a key in itself. The defense has to be competent against the pass, too. Lead Moo-Cow and senior quarterback Brian Hoyer has been improving from game to game. This season thus far, he has completed 137 of 279 passes with 9 TDs and 6 interceptions. He’s been sacked 14 times. Certainly, applying pressure to Hoyer on passing downs is essential. In any case, I would not recommend the BBDB defense, better known here as the matador defense, that was employed against Iowa in the fourth quarter of that game. The soft zone sucks and you’ve heard it here over and over again. Nevertheless, the defense will have to contend with both run and pass situations. For those of you who think Moo U’s offense is one-dimensional, their average yardage per game is 147.82 rushing and 207.36 passing, ranking #64 and #65, respectively. Michigan State actually ranks #9 in rushing in the conference. One has to suppose that a strong reason for that has been the obsession with stopping Ringer. So, let’s see if that strategy is successful.
Here’s how Ringer has played. I’ll show opponents with national rushing defense rank, number of yards, and total MSU points in Big Ten and selected non-conference games.
- #39 California, 81, 31 (loss)
- #57 Notre Dame, 201, 23 (win)
- #92 Indiana, 198, 42 (win)
- #18 Iowa, 91, 16 (win)
- #44 Northwestern, 124, 37 (win)
- #26 Ohio State, 67, 7 (loss)
- #45 Michigan, 194, 35 (win)
- #32 Wisconsin, 54, 25 (win)
- #96 Purdue, 121, 21 (win)
In the above games where Ringer has run for over 100 yards, Moo U. scored an average of 31.6 points; when he was held under 100, they scored an average of 19.7 points. The rush defenses that were able to hold him under 100 yards were ranked nationally between 18 and 39. Penn State ranks #10.
Penn State’s pass efficiency defense ranks #2 nationally. This misleading statistic partially relates to the conservative overall nature of the Big Ten Conference. The only pass-happy team the Nittany Lions have faced was Purdue. The pass defense has not been tested against a competent pass-oriented offense. However, Michigan State does not rank with the cream of the crop there. If PSU does not get too obsessed with Ringer, they can minimize the Moo U. damage.
The Nittany Lions will have to score enough points to win this one. The habit of not playing well in the first half must abate; as well, turnovers must cease. Clark’s two fumbles last week were particularly disconcerting. So, two significant keys will be playing four quarters and taking care of the ball.
Royster, as well, will be a key. The running game, derailed of late, has to get back on track. There have been some significant breakdowns in the interior offensive line that resulted in there being scant few holes to exploit for Royster, who ranks #22 in the nation and #3 in the conference behind Greene and Ringer. Fortunately, the Moo U. rushing defense is ranked #73. Royster should have his way with them.
The pass will be problematical, as Michigan State ranks #12 in pass efficiency defense. Clark hasn’t been throwing very accurately, so this Turkey’s guess is that pass plays, such as there are, will be mostly of the short, safe variety. Whether Clark has worked through his confidence issues and whether he has fully recovered from the concussion he suffered in the Ohio State game—both physically and mentally—is anyone’s guess. Clark certainly has shown signs of impaired decision making, along with his pass accuracy problems. Whether these issues are due to a late-season slump or the concussion are immaterial. Dantonio will no doubt want to test Clark’s ability to handle pressure. Still, Clark is the man, and I doubt that you’ll be seeing Devlin unless the game is well out of reach, one way or the other.
OK, I’ll present a few so-called intangibles for the hell of it, because I like you and I know you can’t live without them.
The Spartans have been relaxing with a bye week. Dantonio made it a vacation week for the players, prohibiting them from accessing the athletic facility during the off week. Sparty will be rested, healed, and ready. Presumably, their attitude will be good because they’ve seen a few movies last week, and they weren’t game films. So that’s an intangible in Moo U’s favor.
Whether the Nittany Lions are equally ready is problematical. Much is at stake in this game, but even more was at stake in Iowa, where the boys faltered miserably. However, this is where the Lions have a great, big intangible advantage: the home crowd. It’s the last game of the year, the Big Ten championship is on the line, it’s Senior Day, and the boys want to see “2008” added to the other championship years inscribed in the ring around the Beaver Stadium luxury boxes. If that doesn’t get a noisy, raucous crowd out, what the hell will?
Indeed, the kickoff is at 3:30 PM, not noon, so the hangovers will have had time to abate and new buzzes will have had enough time to kick in. There are no excuses for a lack of proper ambiance for this game.
The weather will be cold and breezy. We’ve seen some hands issues from the Iowa game forward, not coincidentally all cold weather games. It is this Turkey’s hope that we’ll see fewer dropped passes this week than we have been seeing the past couple of weeks. The weather, however, is an intangible that should affect both teams equally, unless someone hogs all the space heaters while the other guys forget to bring any, as was the case with the Iowa game.
One last intangible. Much has been made of the rumor that this will be Joe Paterno’s final game at Beaver Stadium. He has pooh-poohed that rumor, stonewalling it as usual, but he does admit that he needs a hip replacement and it most likely will happen soon after the Michigan State game. At the press conference today, Paterno stated that he wanted to coach the bowl game on the sidelines, not from the booth. Based on my own rehab track record, that certainly would be possible, as Joe is probably in better shape at 81 than I was at 54. Meanwhile, Joe’s wife, Sue, has been inviting family and friends from all over the country to attend this game. Lots of people are adding two and two, in this Turkey’s opinion, coming up with five. Nevertheless, with a strong, malodorous whiff of a possible Paterno retirement in the air, we have another strongly motivating intangible for the boys.
And so, boys and girls, that brings us to the feature you’ve been waiting for all season, the final Official Turkey Poop Prediction of the 2008 Penn State season! Last week, thanks to the offense forgetting to play the first half, Penn State did not cover the spread. This Turkey predicted a 47-10 outcome; it was actually 34-7. Not unlike my assessment of the crowd, if a game with such significant overtones does not arouse the footballistic passions of the Nittany Lions, they might as well all just visit the apartment of Evans, Koroma, and Quarless and pass a joint around. This is it. This is the season. It’s 48 minutes of basketball. Oops, I mean it’s 60 minutes of football, baby! Las Vegas has established Penn State as a two-touchdown favorite with no over/under at present, although one book opened at 48. That combination would suggest a final score of 31-17. With Ringer on the loose and Clark on the mend, but still a “maybe”, this Turkey thinks the spread is in jeopardy this week. But shit, I’ve been wrong all season. I hope it’s a Penn State blowout, but the OTPP is Penn State 27, Michigan State 24.