Coming off two losses in their previous three games, the Michigan State Spartans got back on track in Saturday's regular-season finale with a 30-27 victory over Penn State at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State entered November looking like a potential College Football Playoff contender with an 8-0 record. Things took a sharp turn with a loss to Purdue on Nov. 6, and the bottom dropped out with last week's 56-7 defeat against Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions entered this week also trying to right the ship after a rough stretch. They have lost five of their last seven games after a 5-0 start. The previous four losses came by a total of 18 points.
Snowy weather certainly played a role in the game, especially for Penn State. The Nittany Lions were held to 61 rushing yards on 26 attempts. Kicker Jordan Stout missed his only field-goal attempt and one of his three extra-point opportunities.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Walker III had no problems finding openings in the snow. The Spartans running back finished with 138 rushing yards and one touchdown on 30 carries.
Both quarterbacks, though, had success throwing the ball. Penn State's Sean Clifford racked up 313 yards and three touchdowns. Michigan State's Payton Thorne finished with 268 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Thorne's 20-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed on 4th-and-15 with 5:10 remaining was the difference in the game.
Penn State did get a late score from Parker Washington to cut the deficit to three points, but Spartans recovered the onside kick to end the game.
Notable Game Stats
- Payton Thorne (MSU): 19-of-30, 268 yards, 2 TD, INT; 8 carries, 39 yards, TD
- Kenneth Walker III (MSU): 30 carries, 138 yards, TD
- Jayden Reed (MSU): 6 receptions, 89 yards, TD
- Sean Clifford (PSU): 23-of-34, 313 yards, 3 TD
- Jahan Dotson (PSU): 8 receptions, 137 yards, 2 TD
- Keyvone Lee (PSU): 15 carries, 79 yards
Walker Boosts Heisman Resume in Spartans' Win
There's an argument that Walker was the Heisman favorite coming into Saturday's slate of games. The junior entered this week with 1,597 yards from scrimmage and 18 total touchdowns in 11 games.
To no one's surprise, Michigan State fed the ball to its star running back early in the game. He carried the ball four times out of eight plays on the team's first possession, including a touchdown from two yards out.
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Some B1G weather in East Lansing today. 👀<a href="https://twitter.com/Kenneth_Walker9?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Kenneth_Walker9</a> puts No. 12 <a href="https://twitter.com/MSU_Football?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MSU_Football</a> up early. <a href="https://t.co/XOBUTTVp93">pic.twitter.com/XOBUTTVp93</a>
After Penn State pinned the Spartans at their own one-yard line following a punt, Walker gave the offense plenty of breathing room with a 35-yard run on first down. He followed that up with a 15-yard scamper on the next play.
Michigan State drove 99 yards on nine plays to take a 14-0 lead with six minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Just when it looked like a blowout was on the horizon, the Spartans' unreliable defense allowed Penn State to get back in the game. Then, Daequan Hardy picked off Thorne and took the ball to the house to put the Nittany Lions up 20-17 in the third quarter.
Mel Tucker went back to the ground game on the ensuing possession to get the Spartans back on top. Walker once again started the drive with a big play, gaining 27 yards to get the ball in Penn State territory.
After the Nittany Lions defense kept Walker out of the end zone on back-to-back runs near the goal line, Thorne called his own number on 3rd-and-goal from the one for the score.
Clinging to a 23-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, Tucker's decision to go for it on 4th-and-15 from Penn State's 20-yard line rather than attempting a field goal in the driving snow turned out to be the difference.
Thorne just threw a jump ball to Reed, who was facing single coverage in the end zone. The Spartans wide receiver came down with it to extend the lead to 10 with 5:10 to play.
Walker certainly wasn't the only Spartans player creating big plays in this game, but he was the center of everything they did. They ran 77 total plays on offense, with Walker carrying the ball 30 times.
The Heisman Trophy race is far from settled, especially with Ohio State losing and Alabama struggling against Auburn on Saturday. Walker's resume this season is as strong as any of the top contenders. His 138-yard performance in poor weather conditions could be enough to catapult him to the top of the ballot.
Key Mistakes Doom Penn State's Upset Hopes
In a year that's been defined by missed opportunities and crucial mistakes in big moments, it's only fitting that Penn State would make several errors in the regular-season finale.
The issues began on the Nittany Lions' first offensive possession when Keyvone Lee was stopped short of the sticks on 3rd-and-2. James Franklin elected to punt the ball away from his own 47-yard line rather than go for it on 4th-and-1.
It seemed like a wise decision since Penn State downed the ball at the Spartans' one-yard line, but the defense gave up 99 yards on nine plays to go down by two touchdowns.
Penn State did respond with a 68-yard scoring drive of its own, capped off by Jahan Dotson's 27-yard touchdown reception from Sean Clifford.
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Each of the next three drives by both teams ended in punts before Penn State was able to get in the end zone again to tie the score. Dotson once again made the big play with a 30-yard catch for his second touchdown of the game.
Hardy's pick-six in the third quarter could have turned the game in the Nittany Lions' favor. They took their first lead at that point, but a missed extra point kept the score at 20-17.
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.<a href="https://twitter.com/PennStateFball?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@PennStateFball</a> has its first lead of the day.<a href="https://twitter.com/DaequanHardy?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@DaequanHardy</a>'s Pick-6 makes it 20-17. <a href="https://t.co/HLPRvpLHLe">pic.twitter.com/HLPRvpLHLe</a>
The missed extra point was the second missed opportunity of the game for Penn State. Jordan Stout missed a 27-yard field goal right before halftime that would have tied the score at 17.
After Michigan State went back on top 23-20, Penn State was faced with a 4th-and-1 from the Spartans' 16-yard line. Franklin chose to go for it rather than have Stout attempt a 33-yard field goal.
Keyvone Lee was stopped short of the first-down marker, giving Michigan State possession early in the fourth quarter.
Penn State's defense did force a punt, but the offense again made a blunder when Lee fumbled the ball away. Drew Beesley recovered to help set up the decisive touchdown for the Spartans.
The reason Penn State's season fell apart is because of miscues and turnovers. The defense gave up a 44-yard touchdown to Nico Ragaini midway through the fourth quarter in a 23-20 loss to Iowa.
Illinois held Penn State to 18 points in a game that featured nine overtimes. The offense had to settle for a field goal in the red zone after forcing a fourth-quarter turnover against Michigan. That allowed the Wolverines to drive 75 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in a 21-17 win.
Saturday's loss was a perfect microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for Franklin's squad down the stretch in 2021.
Penn State and Michigan State will learn which bowl game they will play in after the CFP field is announced on Dec. 5.
This article will be updated to provide more information on this story as it becomes available.