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Previewing The Enemy: Michigan State Spartans

It’s time to battle for the Land-Grant Trophy, ladies and gents.

Penn State football will finish the regular season with a trip to East Lansing against No. 12 Michigan State this Saturday. The Spartans are coming off a brutal 56-7 loss to No. 2 Ohio State but still boast a 9-2 record and sit at third place in the Big Ten East.

Michigan State is seriously banged up as it finishes up its regular season, so let’s have a look at its personnel entering this weekend’s clash.

The Team

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker joined the new-contract club with James Franklin this past week, as he agreed to a 10-year, $95 million deal. Now finishing up his second season with the Spartans, Tucker has helped turn the team around from a 2-5 record in 2020.

The Spartans opened this 2021 campaign in red-hot fashion. Tucker’s team ripped off eight straight wins, including a 37-33 win over then-No. 6 Michigan. The group has lost two of its last three, however, with a shocking defeat to Purdue and the ugly trip up against Ohio State.

Outside of the recent defeats, several of Michigan State’s star players are nursing injuries. Stud wideouts Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are both questionable for this weekend’s contest, while left tackle Jarrett Horst has missed the last three games for a medical reason. Most notably, Heisman contending running back Kenneth Walker III is dealing with an ankle injury that hampered him against the Buckeyes last weekend.

With all of that in mind, Penn State and Michigan State have both been swapping as one-point favorites throughout this week.

Offense

Despite all the injuries, Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne is healthy and is having a fairly solid campaign entering the regular-season finale. The redshirt sophomore has thrown for 2,618 yards this year, along with 22 scores and a completion rate of 60.5%.

Thorne, like the rest of the Spartans, struggled last weekend against Ohio State by totaling just 14 completions worth 155 yards. However, he’d put together a solid performance the week prior, as he threw for 287 yards and four scores in a 40-21 win over Maryland.

Outside of their signal-caller, the star of the Spartans’ offense is obviously Kenneth Walker III. He obviously struggled against the Buckeyes and earned just six attempts on the day, but there’s not really any question about the junior’s ability. Walker sustained the ankle injury against Maryland two weeks ago, but he could still likely be a factor against the Nittany Lions’ defense.

The Doak Walker and Maxwell Award finalist has already racked up 1,498 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on the season, including seven triple-digit yardage performances.

Entering last weekend’s trip to Columbus, Walker had totaled at least 100 yards in three straight games. Most notably, he grabbed 197 yards and a season-high five touchdowns in the massive win over Michigan in late October.

If Walker is indeed limited with the ankle injury, Penn State should expect to see time for Jordon Simmons. The sophomore is second on the team with 255 rushing yards on 54 attempts this year, most of which came from a 121-yard day against Youngstown State in week two.

Through the air, Thorne’s top targets have without a doubt been Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor. However, the pair that’s totaled 78 catches for 1,444 yards this year aren’t necessarily ready to go for Saturday’s contest. Nailor sustained an injury against Michigan and has missed the last three games, while Reed — the team’s leading receiver with 857 yards — missed the second half against Ohio State with a boot on his right foot.

If Reed and Nailor are both in fact out against the Nittany Lions, it will be Tre Mosley’s turn to step up for the Spartans. The redshirt sophomore is third on the team with 463 yards on 29 catches and managed a 46-yard grab against the Buckeyes. However, Mosley only has one game this year in which he’s totaled more than four catches. That came against Nebraska when he had six catches for 70 yards.

Along with Mosley, tight ends Connor Heyward and Tyler Hunt could add value through the air. The first of the pair — a redshirt senior — has managed 26 catches this year and has been a fairly consistent target for Thorne, while Hunt has 14 catches for 136 yards.

Defense

The story all season for Michigan State’s defense has been its issues in defending against the pass. The Spartans are allowing a Big Ten-worst 339.9 passing yards per game this season, and are coming off a brutal performance against Ohio State in which they allowed a 432-yard performance to CJ Stroud.

Senior safety Xavier Henderson has been a bright spot for Michigan State’s otherwise struggling aerial defense. The Ohio native already has 89 total tackles this year, three sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception. The stud safety was one of the several players who went down with an injury against Ohio State, however,

Henderson’s counterparts, Darius Snow and Angelo Grose, have also had statistically strong seasons. However, the point remains that the Spartans have allowed ridiculously impressive passing performances this season, including 536 yards to Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell.

While Mike Yurcich will likely prioritize attacking the weaknesses in the secondary, Michigan State’s rush defense has been solid. The Spartans are allowing just 123.5 yards per game on that front, and that effort is led by defensive tackles Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow. Slade has grabbed 31 total tackles this year — including two for a loss — while Barrow is close behind with 28 tackles of his own and 2.5 sacks.

Jeff Pietrowski and Jacub Panasiuk lead the charge at defensive end. The pair both have 28 total tackles this year and lead the team with 5.5 sacks apiece, while graduate senior Drew Beesley is just behind with 3.5 sacks of his own.

At linebacker, Penn State will likely see plenty of Noah Harvey and Cal Haladay. The second of the pair has grabbed 67 total tackles this season and an interception, while Harvey has two sacks this year.

Tennessee transfer Quavaris Crouch has had a great year at the linebacker so far, as he’s made 75 total tackles and two sacks. However, Crouch didn’t see a ton of the field against Ohio State last week as he played with a brace on his knee, and his status is unclear for this weekend.

Overall, the Nittany Lions will likely focus on attacking the Spartans with Sean Clifford’s arm rather than battling a fairly solid rush defense up front.

Special Teams

Senior Matt Coghlin is still doing his thing at kicker for the Spartans. He’s nailed all 37 of his extra points and is 10-for-16 on field-goal attempts, but he’s missed two inside of 40 yards.

At punter, Bryce Baringer is averaging 49.4 yards on 53 attempts and has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line on 18 occasions. The redshirt senior was a member of the Ray Guy Award watch list before this season but wasn’t able to slide in as a finalist despite a solid season thus far.

Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor have gotten work as the punt and kick returners for the Spartans. But with their statuses unclear, those jobs may be left to other athletes on Mel Tucker’s squad.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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