This game has plenty of importance for both teams involved, as well as Ohio State. The Big Ten title race has come down to the final weekend, and three teams have a shot at Roses.
For Penn State, the situation is simple: Beat Michigan State and you'll be playing in Pasadena this January, regardless of what happens at noon between Ohio State and Michigan. MSU and OSU will be relying on each other: OSU needs MSU to win, while MSU needs OSU to lose to help them out.
It's a complex title race, much better than the conference just gift-wrapping a title for Ohio State. It makes for more dramatic television.
On to the game itself...
Michigan State hasn't won in Happy Valley since Penn State joined the Big Ten. Technically, the Spartans haven't tasted victory there since the 1960s, but the two teams haven't played annually until the Big Ten became 11.
Last season's game was a thrilling one. The Spartans came in at 6-5, hoping to go to their first bowl game since 2003. It was a frigid night in East Lansing, but Spartans from all over packed Spartan Stadium in anticipation of a bowl berth in Mark Dantonio's first season.
Penn State ran out to a 24-7 lead midway through the third quarter, but the Spartan faithful would not let their team go down without a fight. In the dark ages (the John L. Smith years), a large deficit would have meant an empty stadium. That's the Dantonio difference.
As the crowd got behind the Spartans, MSU engineered an impressive comeback behind stellar play by Brian Hoyer and Devin Thomas. When the dust cleared, the Spartans had won 35-31 and were on their way to Orlando.
I was in the stands that day as a member of the Spartan Marching Band, and I don't think I'll ever forget the feeling of euphoria as the last seconds ticked off the clock.
This year's game features two teams who have made vast improvements from last season. Penn State comes in with a defense that is downright nasty, as Ohio State learned. Michigan State will battle the defensive unit with a beefy offensive line that paves the way for Doak Walker candidate Javon Ringer.
The two teams are playing for more than just middling bowl games this year. BCS berths are on the line, and the players will be well aware of this. Michigan State has never been to a BCS bowl and is hungry for their first. Penn State was in the hunt for a National Title until two weeks ago and is hungry to forget about the Iowa debacle.
Michigan State will win if...
The passing game is working
I'm hesitant to blame all of the passing game's problems on Brian Hoyer. Sure, he's made some bad throws this season. But more often than not, he throws a catchable ball and the receivers don't hold up their end of the bargain. Hoyer is taking a lot of unnecessary heat because the receiving corps is not helping him out.
That said, the receivers do have some positives to build on going into this game. Blair White has been a revelation ever since the win in Ann Arbor. Charlie Gantt has turned out to be a reliable tight end. B.J. Cunningham has big play potential, as does Keshawn Martin. And the leader of the receivers, Mark Dell, hopes to be back from a knee injury this weekend.
Michigan State doesn't need 450 yards in the air from Hoyer. What they need are the short little out routes that were so devastatingly effective against Michigan and Northwestern. The passing game opened up wide running lanes for Javon Ringer and kept the defense guessing for the whole game.
The defense does their job
Greg Jones will be playing on Sundays. The linebacker was arguably Michigan State's best defensive player last season as a freshman and has stepped his game up another level this season. He can stop the run, help on pass coverage, and contribute on special teams. The Spartans will need a huge effort from Jones this weekend if they want to be successful.
The pass rush also has to be firing on all cylinders. They set up camp in Purdue's backfield two weeks ago and made the Boilermakers look like a bunch of high schoolers. Even if the pass rush isn't registering sacks, they need to spend time in the backfield harassing the Nittany Lion offense, throwing off their timing.
Lastly, the secondary needs to be prepared to stop the run and the pass. This is Otis Wiley's last regular season collegiate game, and he has to be prepared to go out with a bang. The Spartans can't give up the deep ball.
Brett Swenson brings his good leg
After the horror show that was John Goss back in 2005, the Spartans have been relieved to have a lot of consistency in their kicking game. Swenson hit 15 field goals in a row earlier this season and ended up winning the Wisconsin game on a very late field goal. The young man has ice in his veins, and a lot of these late-season slugfests in the cold can come down to the kicking game.
This is one category where the edge has to indisputably be given to the Spartans.
Michigan State will lose if...
Javon Ringer gets stuffed
He had subpar games against both Ohio State and Cal, and the Spartans lost both of those games. Ringer's play determines a great deal with regard to how the offense runs. If Ringer is having a good day, the deep ball will be open off play action fakes. If Ringer is off...well, let's just say that the Spartans will have some serious trouble moving the ball.
Ringer's backups, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, will one day be solid college backs. But they are too inexperienced to shoulder the load that Ringer has been asked to carry this season. The Spartans need Ringer to score at least one touchdown, maybe two, to win.
The receivers are plagued by drops
It's always an adventure with Spartan receivers. The sure touchdown that B.J. Cunningham dropped in the Wisconsin game nearly gave me a heart attack. Ditto for Chris Rucker. Guys getting scholarships to play big-time college football should not be making mistakes like these.
Fortunately for the Spartans, drops haven't cost them a game...yet. Most of their worst games, drop-wise, have come against inferior competition. I assure you, Penn State is not inferior competition. More than a couple drops by Spartan receivers in this game mean that Michigan State will be on the losing end. They can't afford to give up downs and yardage.
If the weather reports are to be believed, the Big Ten title will be contested in the snow. Snow means that the running game will have to be the primary mode of ball movement by default, meaning the game will go to whichever offensive line wants it more.
Which team would have the advantage if there was heavy snowfall? I'd have to say Michigan State. They've already played and won in one torrential downpour this season, against FAU. They rode Javon Ringer to almost 300 yards that game and proved they are built to grind out wins in tough conditions.
If there isn't heavy snowfall, it will be harder to call. The passing games will be limited but not irrelevant. The deep passing game will be nonexistent, so whoever is more successful at mixing runs with short, accurate passes should come away with the win.
I'm picking Michigan State to win. They currently hold all four of their major rivalry trophies: The Megaphone (Notre Dame), Brass Spittoon (Indiana), Paul Bunyan Trophy (Michigan), and the Land Grant Trophy (Penn State). Under John L. Smith, this program forgot what it was like to hold trophies. Mark Dantonio has reminded them how good it feels to win.
The Spartans can almost taste their first piece of the title since 1990. They're hungry and have figured out how to win the close one this season. Look for a good old-fashioned Big Ten slugfest in Happy Valley this weekend.
Michigan State 20, Penn State 16
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