For the first time this season, I was wrong in my Penn State prediction. I had gone 8-0 to this point, choosing Penn State in each of the first seven weeks before picking the Buckeyes to defeat the Nittany Lions last week. This weekend, however, I was certain that Penn State would get back on track against a much-improved Michigan State team to prove that the Nittany Lions can still compete for a National Championship.
After poor weather conditions worsened throughout the early portion of the game, officials put a stop to the action midway through the second quarter in order to protect the players and fans inside Spartan Stadium. With 7:58 to play in the second quarter, and Penn State leading by a touchdown, 14-7, the game was halted due to lightning in the area. Locals throughout East Lansing would lose power, but the stadium never did. Fans and those on the field were ushered away from the stands and into safer locations until the weather cleared.
The lengthy delay lasted almost three and a half hours before officials deemed the game safe to resume. Michigan State took control of the football once again, albeit on third down, inside Penn State territory. The Spartans would eventually turn the football over on downs, but the air of the game had seemingly been sucked from the stadium and from my TV. Conditions on the field were poor, at best, and players were exchanging gloves for the traditional bare hand look in order to get a better grip on the football. It was an ugly remainder of the game, and the Nittany Lions failed to execute when the needed it most. Penn State watched as Michigan State both took the Land Grant Trophy home and doused the Nittany Lions playoff aspirations all on one rainy afternoon in East Lansing.
For the second weekend in a row, Penn State left enemy territory with a loss. And as we have all season long, we’ve learned some things about this Penn State football team.
1. I Cursed The Penn State Defense
I’m a sports writer. I’m also a sports broadcaster. I’m also also a superstitious sports fan. And I know this: I cursed Penn State’s defense two weeks ago. (Read: I have absolutely no influence on the outcome of a collegiate football game that was played hundreds of miles away, but this is my justification, and perhaps a coping mechanism as I watch my alma mater fail to win for the second straight week.) Two weeks ago, I praised the Penn State defense, touting them as, perhaps, the best defense in all of college football. I compared them to the Alabama Crimson Tide, stating the Nittany Lions’ combination of a ferocious front four paired with a good coverage team was as deadly as they come. Since the win over Michigan, Penn State has allowed 728 yards through the air going up against J.T. Barrett last week and Brian Lewerke this weekend. The front seven simply wasn’t able to get a consistent pass rush going, especially late in games, either week. Now, I also have to understand that Trace McSorley and the Penn State offense put the defense in bad spots all afternoon long. McSorley threw three interceptions this weekend, and the lack of production from the offensive line have made the Nittany Lions one dimensional. This lack of offense doesn’t effectively change the field or give the defense a chance to hold opposing offenses off the scoreboard, especially late in games. We’ll touch more on this later, so I won’t go too in depth at this time.
The good news of the defense this weekend was that the rushing attack was way down for Michigan State. Exploitation of the struggling Penn State secondary amalgamated with the sloppy weather conditions that stalled both rushing attacks likely aided to the low Michigan State rushing total, but the numbers were down nonetheless. Productive back L.J. Scott found few running lanes in this one, carrying the ball 14 times for 43 yards, a 3.1 yards per carry clip. In three games now against Penn State, Scott has struggled to get going, rushing for just 142 yards on 41 carries.
This was an excruciatingly difficult 15 day gauntlet for Penn State, having to face Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan in just over two weeks, but good defenses hold up, even against the best offenses, to give their team a chance to win. The Penn State defense didn’t do that again this weekend.
2. The Running Game Is In Shambles
Penn State’s roster features the best running back in the nation. In fact, it might feature the best offensive player in the country. I’m not going to dive any further into it than that, You already know these things. But the Penn State roster may also feature the biggest running game killer in all of football: a poor offensive line. For the fourth year in a row, the Penn State offensive line has absolutely dismantled any hopes of a productive rushing attack. That didn’t change this weekend against Michigan State. Saquon Barkley carried the football 14 times in this one, picking up 63 yards. That’s a 4.5 yards per carry clip. Now, that yards per carry numbers, on the surface, is an effective one. If you think of it this way, two 4.5 yards carries in a row sets an offense up with an extremely workable third and one situation. But it’s the bulk of carries that are concerning. Each week, Barkley’s trajectory has become more and more Barry Sanders-like. Sanders played behind a similarly poor offensive line with the Detroit Lions. His rushes would go something like this: one yard gain, two yard loss, one yard gain, 75 yard touchdown run. He used his incredible ability in spite a bad offensive line. That seems to be what Barkley is now facing as well. Opposing defenses are stacking eight guys in the box with the understanding that Barkley is going to get his touches, regardless of the score of circumstances of the game. That, compared with the fact that no team currently respects Trace McSorley and the passing game, makes for rough sledding for Barkley out of the backfield. If you remember two weeks ago, (remember that time in the not so distant past when the Nittany Lions were calling for ‘Bama? It seems like an eternity ago.), Penn State was most effective in the ground game against Michigan when McSorley was pulling the football more frequently in the read option, keeping it for himself and running. That has been used far less over the last two weekends, subsequently two losses. The ground game has been inept since Penn State has gone into conference play, and because of that, Barkley’s Hesiman hopes have all but evaporated.
3. Wisconsin Has The Only Chance To Represent The Big Ten In The CFP
While there are certainly outside circumstances that could adversely affect this statement over the final five weeks of the college football regular season, it has become a near foregone conclusion at this point. Penn State has lost in consecutive weeks, Ohio State was downed by Iowa in embarrassing fashion, dropping its second game of the season, and no team in the Big Ten East outside of Michigan State, which now leads the division, has less than two conference losses. Michigan State could still run the table, win the Big Ten title game, and make a case that an 11-2 record with a loss to Notre Dame is good enough to factor them into playoff consideration, but it will be extremely difficult. The Spartans will also need some help from sources beyond their control, namely losses from a handful of teams. One of those teams, however, cannot be Wisconsin. In order for any team to make playoff out of the Big Ten this season, it will require the Wisconsin Badgers to win out and go into the Big Ten Championship undefeated at 12-0. A win would push them to 13-0, making them extremely difficult to overlook in the committee’s selection despite the team’s relatively weak schedule. Should they win out in the western division and take down the eastern champion, the Badgers should, and I say should because nothing is guaranteed with human selection in the playoff committee, punch their ticket to the final four games at the end of December. The Badgers still have a date with the Michigan Wolverines and the resurgent Iowa Hawkeyes over the next two weeks. Should they emerge 11-0 from those games, a date with the Minnesota Golden Gophers is all that would stand in their way of a perfect regular season.
4. Rutgers Isn’t The Laughing Stock Of The Big Ten Anymore
Okay, fine, we didn’t exactly learn this directly from the Penn State-Michigan State game, but it is apropos considering the Scarlet Knights will be the next opponent the Nittany Lions face when they finally get back into Beaver Stadium next weekend. After being nothing short of abysmal in the school’s first three seasons in the Big Ten, they aren’t the laughing stock of the conference any more and shouldn’t be taken as such when the team goes into Happy Valley. Rutgers is now 4-5, a far cry from the previous three weeks, but is much improved in Chris Ash’s second season at the helms. After going 4-21 in Big Ten play in their first three seasons in the conference, the Scarlet Knights have found themselves at 3-3 in conference play and winners of three of their last four games. Despite losing to Washington to open the season for the second straight season, this year’s adaptation was far more convincing than 2016’s. This year, they fell 30-14. Last year, it was 48-13. The gap has closed as Rutgers finally has found a small foothold in the Big Ten.
Will they ever out-recruit the big dogs of the conference? Likely not. But, they are beginning to compete and surpass the teams like Illinois. They’re now on even par with teams such as Minnesota, at least for now. We all know what P.J. Fleck can do on the recruiting trail. He got 18-year-old kids to commit to play football in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the MAC. He could sell ice to an Eskimo. He’s as good of a used car salesman as James Franklin.
Getting back to Rutgers, however. Penn State faithful, head my warning. Do not take this next game for granted. Will Penn State win? I’m almost certain. But don’t assume it’s Rutgers and it will be a cake walk, especially if the weather is poor, as it’s expected to be. These team took down Purdue, which hung with Lamar Jackson and Louisville. They also beat Maryland, which smacked up Texas on opening day. I’m curious to see how Rutgers gets up for this game, which is effectively their biggest game remaining. I’m also interested to see how Penn State prepares after being beaten twice in the final minute of play in consecutive weeks.
Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports