Penn State Nittany Lions, Michigan State Spartans: Preview, game time, outlook

By Dana Gauruder, The Sports Xchange  |  Nov. 1, 2017 at 11:27 AM
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Penn State's team leaders don't want one loss to morph into a second-half slide. That's why linebacker Jason Cabinda, quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley decided it was time for a team meeting.

The Nittany Lions reiterated their season goals on Sunday, one day after giving away a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead at Ohio State and losing 39-38.

"We just felt like there were some things we had to get off our chest, making sure the mentality of the team was the same," Cabinda said. "Be sure that we were (all) still taking the same approach. Knowing there's a ton of football left and a lot still left to be accomplished. We're kind of just reiterating those things, really."

The Nittany Lions (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten), who dropped from No. 2 in the AP poll to No. 7 in CFP rankings released Tuesday, face another ranked team trying to rebound from a gut-wrenching loss. Michigan State (6-2, 4-1) is No. 24 in the CFP after losing at Northwestern 39-31 in three overtimes.

Both teams trail the Buckeyes by one game in the Big Ten East entering Saturday's showdown at Spartan Stadium.

Heisman Trophy candidate Barkley returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown and also had a 36-yard scoring run at Ohio State. The latter score was the only time he was able to break free in the ground game, as he netted eight yards on his 20 other carries.

"We need to be more explosive," Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. "That game we were not explosive. We didn't have the big plays we had in the past that, over the last two years, has been kind of our eraser for some of our issues."

They had major issues on defense, surrendering 529 yards. Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett completed 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns.

"The best teams in the country have issues that they need to work on and get better, and we're one of them," Franklin said. "Do we need to get a more consistent pass rush on defense? Yes. We need to consistently be able to get more turnovers on defense. We need to more consistently stop the run."

The Spartans are not as dynamic as Ohio State, but quarterback Brian Lewerke passed for a school-record 445 yards against Northwestern. Michigan State normally relies on its running game, led by LJ Scott (511 yards, four touchdowns).

"They're a hard-nosed Big Ten football program," Franklin said. "They're built on defense, with a defensive head coach. And they're a smash-mouth offense."

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio doesn't want to get into a shootout with a team averaging 39.8 points a game. Holding onto the ball, literally, will be a key factor. The Spartans have fumbled 22 times and been fortunate to lose only 10. Penn State has forced 14 fumbles and recovered 11.

"It's a point of emphasis and a point of frustration," Dantonio said.

"Penn State is the best in the conference at takeaways right now. That traditionally has been our role when we've won championships. I don't have an answer for you (concerning the fumbles). I can just tell you it's on everybody's mind."

Dantonio is less concerned about his team's resiliency. It bounced back from its other loss, a 38-18 thrashing by Notre Dame, with a seven-point victory over Iowa.

"It's always been my focus here -- what's going to happen next? I cannot change what's happened in the past," he said.

Defending Barkley presents a major challenge. Barkley gained 103 yards on 17 carries against the Spartans two seasons ago, although Michigan State won easily, 55-16. Last season, the Spartans' defense bottled up Barkley, holding him to 14 yards on 12 carries. But McSorley shredded Michigan State through the air, passing for 376 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-12 Penn State romp.

"I don't think there's any way you can prevent them from getting him the ball," Dantonio said of Barkley. "Maybe on kickoffs you could a little bit. They're going to get him the ball when they want. He's a great running back. We've played other great running backs. We've played him before.

"I think we understand who he is and what he represents, how difficult it is to defend him and everything like that. He's a great player. You want to win a football game, you have to shut down great players."

Penn State holds a 14-7 advantage in the series.

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