Underwhelmed And Overmatched: Defense Obliterated By Michigan State Offense
Penn State doesn’t disclose injury information. It’s been James Franklin’s policy to never disclose information at risk of helping opponents’ gameplan, and that’s completely sound. But when it was announced before the Michigan State game that Garrett Sickels didn’t even travel with the team (after knowing that Carl Nassib was likely nursing an injury from last week), it became clear to the public that the Nittany Lions’ already slim chances to beat the nation’s No. 5 team got even slimmer.
Six of the players who started in the season finale started in the opener against Temple (not counting Nassib, who played two snaps before being sidelined all game). The five who were absent (Nassib, Wartman-White, Sickels, Lucas, Campbell), are probably among the team’s eight best defenders. With two linemen, one linebacker, and two players from the secondary missing, an undermanned defense was exposed by a Connor Cook-led Spartan offense that scored six touchdowns (while their defense added two more for a total of 55 points). Nassib and Sickels were the most recent scratches, and their head coach and fellow players noted how important their absences were.
“We’ve been at our best when we’ve been able to get pressure on the quarterback,” Franklin said. “Whether that’s from blitzing, or whether that’s from a four-down rush and playing coverage behind it. Not having Nassib and Sickels in there had an impact on us. It had an impact on us on third down, it had an impact on us on first and second down.”
Safety Malik Golden added, “Those two are a big presence, but we’ve got a saying, ‘next man up,’ so the guys who got up and played, they did a solid job too,” and linebacker Troy Reeder said, “It is difficult, obviously Carl is the Penn State all-time sack leader and he hasn’t played in the last two games. He’s a force out there, Garrett Sickels is also a really good pass rusher, and both are really good in the run game, but Tarow Barney, Parker Cothren, Evan Schwan, and Anthony Zettel sliding over to defensive end all did a really good job given the circumstances.”
Football plays always start up front, and one of the nation’s better offensive lines showed off its talents against a shaken-up Penn State line.
“They’re a pro-style offense with a big, physical offensive line that’s gonna line up and try to pound you, and then play-action and take shots down the field, that’s who they are,” Franklin said. “The size and experience they have on the offensive line and with us missing two out of our four starters in the game, they were able to take advantage of that. Pretty much able to run consistently, and when they did take shots, we weren’t able to get pressure on him. We did not dictate the game to them, they were able to dictate the game to us.”
Even though Penn State was barely outgained 436-418, Franklin’s point about which team dictated the game was evident. The Nittany Lions were plagued by very costly turnovers — an interception from Hackenberg on the first drive of the game, a fumble by Kyle Carter returned for a touchdown, a muffed kickoff return on the nine-yard line, and a late pick-six. Each of those were extremely deflating, and the kickoff return at the nine gave the defense almost no chance to stop the Spartans.
Golden said he didn’t play differently because the Spartans were so highly ranked, but still felt like his team was outmatched.
“We go in saying that we have to play a perfect game regardless of who we play, so they were just another opponent that we had to come out and try to stop,” Golden said.
“They came out with a really good gameplan,” Reeder added. “They did the little things right all game long, and against a team of that caliber, we can’t make any mistakes because they’re gonna capitalize.”
Odds are there was no way Penn State could beat Michigan State, even with players like Nassib and Lucas in the picture. There’s a reason that the Spartans have only lost one game this season. But giving away momentum and field position was too much, and at the end of the game, the better team imposed its will on an already beaten up defense.