I’m sure the majority of college football fans counted Michigan State out of everything when they were upset by Nebraska in controversial fashion a few short weeks ago, but with one game remaining, the Spartans control their own destiny in the Big Ten following a stunning upset over Ohio State this past Saturday.
It’s still amazing to me that the Spartans managed to upend the defending national champions without their starting quarterback, Connor Cook, but what’s even more incredible is that Michigan State lost the turnover battle and still won. Mark Dantonio‘s group has fallen off in most statistical categories since last season, but the one area where the Spartans have thrived has been turnovers, both protecting the ball and taking it away. In fact, entering the game Saturday, they had outscored their opponents 72-3 on drives following turnovers. Against the Buckeyes, Michigan State turned it over twice, leading to 14 points for the opposition while failing to force a turnover. They still won, thanks to Michael Geiger‘s game-winning kick as time expired.
The Spartans will head back to East Lansing for their final test of the season, hosting Penn State on Saturday. The Nittany Lions are certainly a tough out, but there are a few key factors that lead me to believe Michigan State will edge the visitors with or without their star quarterback.
Cook will likely be a game-time decision this weekend, but it should be another defensive struggle. If Cook can’t go, another week of preparation for Tyler O’Connor should help the junior settle into the offense just enough to outscore the Nittany Lions. Penn State’s offensive struggles have been well-documented this year, and an encore performance from the Spartans’ defense should keep Christian Hackenberg and Co. in check. They’ll likely see a heavy dose of freshman phenom Saquon Barkley, but their performance against the talented ground game of Ohio State makes me believe they’ll smother the Nittany Lions’ efforts, especially with a suspect offensive line.
The key matchup will be the Spartans’ offensive line against Penn State’s stellar defensive line led by the nation’s sack leader, Carl Nassib. This may be the best offensive line Michigan State has had under Dantonio, so it should be an intriguing matchup.
The difference for me, though, is the coaching. I’ve said all year that if Penn State is in a close game at halftime, they’ll lose that game if the opposition has solid coaching. James Franklin‘s in-game decisions and halftime adjustments have been poor, while Dantonio is an established leader. Advantage: Michigan State.
If the Spartans come out on top Saturday, they’ll face the unbeaten Iowa Hawkeyes on December 5 in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. Their fate beyond that in the College Football Playoff if they should win, is anyone’s guess.
Jason Shawley is a Featured Writer for RantSports.com covering Big Ten Football. Follow him on Twitter @jshawls.