In yesterday’s article, we ridiculed the Land Grant Trophy, the laughable iconic representation of the Penn State vs. Michigan State contrived rivalry, which apparently will dissolve with the Big Ten expansion coming next year. Today, we go from the ridiculous to the 50 yard-line as we preview the game itself.
The Penn State Nittany Lions (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) will host the #10 Michigan State Spartans (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium on Saturday at high noon. Being the last home game of the regular season, it will be Senior Day for Penn State. However, much of the drama and passion that might have accompanied this contest was defused on Tuesday when Penn State head coach Joe Paterno announced his intentions to coach the squad again in 2011. Many had heretofore speculated that the Michigan State game would be his last game at Beaver Stadium before hanging up the cleats.
Of course, you all know that the last time Michigan State won at Beaver Stadium, the Turkey was a sophomore, the girls had to keep 11 pm weeknight and 1 am weekend curfews, Beaver Stadium held 44,000, and Rip Engle was head coach. Penn State was gobsmacked 23-0 by a Moo U. team destined to hold a piece of the national championship. That was 1965 and this is now. The Lions have faced the Spartans 28 times in all, but since joining the Big Ten, Sparty has been unable to prevail in the hostile confines of Beaver Stadium.
This year would seem to be their best chance in a long time. MSU comes into the game having been defeated only by Iowa. Ranked tenth nationally, they are playing for a BCS bowl and the Big Ten championship. They have lots at stake here, while Penn State is playing for (perhaps) whether it is invited to the Outback Bowl (Tampa) or the Gator Bowl (Jacksonville). Many think so, anyhow.
The Spartans have been playing well and somewhat more emotionally than usual since head coach Mark D’Antonio suffered a mild heart attack following the overtime win over Notre Dame. He is back on the sidelines now.
Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins stands tall among Big Ten quarterbacks. A straight drop-back passer, at 6’3″, he has great field vision and plays a competent passing game, ranking 23rd in pass efficiency. Senior wide receiver Mark Bell is his favorite target. Bell had 108 yards and two touchdowns in the 35-31 win over Purdue last week. Junior B.J. Cunningham caught six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown in the Purdue game. Cousins should be able to make things happen against the Penn State secondary.
The Spartans have settled on sophomore Edwin Baker as their primary running back. He has rewarded that choice by producing over 1,000 yards thus far. While Moo U. was not expected to have a decent running game this year, Baker and the O-Line have surprised everyone with an average of 7.3 yards per carry.
Given that Penn State’s defense is decimated by injuries and ranks 75th in rushing and 73rd in pass efficiency, Cousins and Baker should have a pretty good day.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State’s defense is reasonably good, although it continues to allow inferior teams to put up a lot of points. Last week, Purdue had 31 and was holding a lead deep into the fourth quarter. When asked at the press conference what he thought of that game, Joe Paterno responded, “Purdue is on the verge of becoming a good football team.” In Paterno’s classification heirarchy, there are but two designations for opponents: good football teams and almost good football teams. The former includes both good and mediocre teams, while teams described as the latter just plain suck. On paper it is hard to excuse the Spartans for their penchant for giving up points on occasion. Still, they rank 23rd nationally in scoring defense.
They also rank 23rd in rushing defense, which means that Messrs. Royster and Redd might have a rough time of it, especially if tight-assed coaching rears its ugly head. Penn State ranks 71st in rushing. We might see a couple more reverses involving Derek Moye, which might not look as good as they did against Indiana as the play develops slowly and Michigan State’s front seven is reasonably solid, led by senior middle linebacker Greg Jones, everybody’s All-America and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. Although at 6’1″, he lacks NFL middle linebacker size, Jones makes up for that with quickness and his ability to play sideline to sideline. He decided to return this year instead of entering the NFL Draft, which sits just fine with Spartan fans. I would expect him to go pretty high in the draft whenever he does enter it.
In pass efficiency defense, the Spartans are 28th, versus Penn State’s 71st ranked passing efficiency. If you are playing the lottery this week, make damn good and sure that you play 23 and 71.
In special teams, Keyshawn Martin is a dangerous return man who ranks first in the Big Ten and sixth in the nation for punt returns, with an average of 14.2 yards. Martin is also a wide receiver. I could see Penn State allowing some serious return yardage in this game if Martin’s recently injured ankle doesn’t give him trouble.
The forecast weather conditions for Saturday are cloudy, windy, and cool. The Thanksgiving storm will have passed by then. The wind might present a problem to the passers and the stadium footing might be soft and chunky at times.
Once again, this is a noon start. The student section will be slow to fill and there’ll be a lethargic, uninspired feel for the entire first quarter. If Moo U. grabs the lead early, it will be a long, hard road back. Although the Moosters are not extremely great at forcing turnovers, it will be essential that the Nittany Lions take care of the ball. Another “Key” to the game is to keep Keyshawn Martin corralled on returns. Finally, keep pressure on Cousins, hoping that he’ll make a mistake.
The pneumonia is making me sleepy again, so we’ll have to do the Official Turkey Poop Prediction right now, before I fall asleep completely. Moo U. is favored by 2, with an over/under of 51. This suggests a final score of approximagically 26-25, or thereabouts. There is certainly something to be said about home field advantage for this game and it’s Senior Day, to boot. What the hell, it’s the final game of the season, so I’ll be patriotic. Penn State 31, Michigan State 27 (take the over).
From all of us at the Turkey to all of you out there in Readerland, we wish you and yours a very happy, safe Thanksgiving!! (We’re eating steak this year. Let the turkeys be!)