Michigan State at Penn State

The Sports Xchange

October 10, 2018 at 5:34 pm.

KICKOFF: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
SITE: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
TV: Big Ten Network
SERIES: Michigan State leads 16-15-1. The Spartans won 27-24 last season.
RANKINGS: Penn State No. 8


–WR Felton Davis continues to be Michigan State’s most reliable offensive weapon. Through five games, the senior has 23 receptions for 374 yards and two touchdowns. In the loss to Northwestern, Davis added a 48-yard touchdown run — the first of his career — to go with a 3-yard touchdown grab. With sophomore Cody White out for an indefinite period of time and junior Darrell Stewart Jr. and freshman Jalen Nailor nursing injuries, Davis will continue to be quarterback Brian Lewerke’s top target.

–QB Brian Lewerke, expected to take a big jump this season, has had a hard time finding any rhythm. The junior is completing 64.2 percent of his passes but has thrown six interceptions, with two coming in the end zone. He could draw off past performance this week; he threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan State rallied to beat Penn State at home last season.

–LB Joe Bachie has been limited to just nine stops over the last two games, including only three in a win over Central Michigan. Part of the drop-off is the fact teams simply aren’t attempting to run the ball against the nation’s top rushing defense, but if the Spartans are going to rally this season, Bachie will need to play a significant role.

–CB Justin Layne has had plenty of pressure on him this season as fellow cornerback Josiah Scott has been kept out with a knee injury. The junior has responded, for the most part, drawing the top receiver from the opponent each week, which has led to him giving up a couple of big plays. However, with at least one pass defended in seven of the last 11 games, the 6-foot-3 former wide receiver continues to be Michigan State’s best matchup in the secondary.

Nittany Lions

–QB Trace McSorley has only lost back-to-back games once as a starter and it happened last year when the Nittany Lions dropped a road game to Michigan State after losing to Ohio State. The Spartan rushing defense is the top unit in the nation and McSorley is coming off a career-best 175 rushing yards against Ohio State.

–RB Miles Sanders was held to just 43 yards on 16 carries against Ohio State. Yards should be tough to come by in this one too, but Sanders has the talent to rip off big gains.

–WR Juwan Johnson leads the team in drops in what was supposed to be a breakout campaign. He has just 17 catches for 202 yards and one touchdown on the season so far. It might be time for that big game, however. The Spartans rank 123rd in the country against the pass.

–DE Shareef Miller has been a presence up front all season where he leads the team with three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Michigan State has already surrendered 12 sacks and 31 tackles behind the line of scrimmage on the season.


James Franklin needed to remind reporters at least three times on Tuesday that he was in the Beaver Stadium media room to talk about the Nittany Lions’ upcoming game and not the last one.

But questions have lingered for No. 8 Penn State after a one-point loss to Ohio State put the Nittany Lions on the outside looking in at a shot to play for the Big Ten championship.

Having a bye weekend after the fact hasn’t helped ease those questions. A chance to make good on the loss with a win over Michigan State (3-2, 1-1) could, however.

“Obviously it hurts,” Franklin said. “It hurts our fans. It hurts our coaches. It hurts our players. I think the last thing you want to do is ignore that. You recognize that. You watch the film. You evaluate the film, you make the corrections and you move forward.”

The Nittany Lions aren’t completely out of the playoff picture but need some help moving forward.

First, they need to avoid the pitfall that all but ended their playoff hopes last season after a loss to the Buckeyes with a lackluster game full of mistakes against the Spartans.

Then, a last-second field goal made easier by a handful of defensive penalties sailed through the uprights after a weather delay forced both teams to spend nearly 3 1/2 hours in the locker room in the middle of the game.

“To be optimistic about that day, it was a time where we kind of bonded and had our own little time together,” Penn State wideout Juwan Johnson said. “You don’t get too many times where you’re in the game and you’re just chilling with your teammates for three hours in the locker room.”

They watched movies on their laptops, played hangman and other games to pass the time, and some took naps.

This group of Nittany Lions won’t get that comfortable.

After the Ohio State loss, Franklin vowed to make his players “uncomfortable” from here on out, insisting that after the game he felt the team had grown accustomed to being “great” during a run that produced 24 wins in 27 games, a Big Ten title in 2016 up until its most recent loss.

They started making progress toward that, with multiple players saying Tuesday they took a more serious approach to watching film and spent extra time getting rehab and treatment for multiple ailments.

Meanwhile, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wants his players, who are coming off a 29-19 loss to Northwestern, to play like an elite bunch, too.

“I feel like we should be 5-0,” Dantonio said. “My message to our players is: Play like it. Play like we’re 5-0. Keep the same mindset as we go forward.”

The Spartans, who boast the nation’s top rushing defense, yielded control of their game against the Wildcats when Northwestern mounted a long scoring drive late in the third quarter. Northwestern took advantage of Michigan State’s shoddy pass defense and Clayton Thorson was 7 of 8 for 58 yards and delivered the dagger on a 21-yard touchdown pass.

Overall, Michigan State’s secondary is allowing 305 yards per game through the air.

Johnson, who leads Penn State in drops in what was supposed to be a breakout season for him, isn’t letting the numbers convince him this will be an easy game, however. Elite teams don’t tend to think like that.

“Think about the positive things that happen and feed off that,” Johnson said. “Because the moment you start thinking about the negative things, you’re going to start feeling a certain way and going to start getting into your head.”

Dantonio isn’t as concerned with the number, either.

“Well, how are we playing against the perimeter pass, which is bubbles and jailbreak screens and things like that,” Dantonio said. “Because they’ve got to throw that into the run game, because that’s how people are running the ball against us in some regards. So we look at that aspect and ask ourselves how we’re playing and we work at it.”