Michigan State can wrap up division with win over Penn State
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) One more victory would give Michigan State's senior class a share of a school record with 42 victories.
That's a mark currently held by the 2013 and 2014 seniors, which is quite a statement about what kind of run the Spartans have been on in recent years. Milestones like this have become the norm. It's championships that matter in East Lansing.
''Our goal is to win the East,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ''That is the first primary object of this football game - beat Penn State, win the East.''
After upsetting undefeated Ohio State on the road without star quarterback Connor Cook, the sixth-ranked Spartans can wrap up a division title and a trip to the Big Ten championship game by beating Penn State on Saturday. It would be Michigan State's third trip to the conference title game in five years.
The Spartans (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) are fifth in the playoff committee's latest ranking, so there's even more at stake in this game than the conference race. Michigan State's victories over Michigan and Ohio State this year both came on the final play. Those teams play each other earlier Saturday, but the winner can only make it to the Big Ten title game if the Spartans lose.
Penn State (7-4, 4-3) already had two chances to shake up the division race, but the Nittany Lions lost by double digits to both Ohio State and Michigan. Penn State is trying to avoid a third straight loss to Michigan State, which would be its longest losing streak in this series since dropping five in a row from 1949-66.
''Obviously Michigan State's done a lot of really good things to come up with a win last week and it's going to be a great challenge for us,'' Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. ''They've got a lot of momentum coming into this game.''
Here are a few things to watch when the Spartans host the Nittany Lions:
Cook missed the Ohio State game with a shoulder injury, and Dantonio indicated he might be a game-time decision against Penn State. If he can't play, backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry will have to fill in like they did against the Buckeyes.
Penn State has its own health issues. Senior DE Carl Nassib was hurt in a game at Northwestern three weeks ago. He played the first defensive series against Michigan but was shut down when it was clear he wasn't healthy.
''You could make an argument that he could've been the difference in five plays and those five plays could've been significant,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said. ''Hopefully we can get him back.''
STRENGTH UP FRONT
Michigan State was able to overcome Cook's absence because of a strong performance by its offensive line. The run blocking in particular was superb against Ohio State, enabling the Spartans to rush for 203 yards.
''As much as anything, I think it was an attitude from our guys up front,'' Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. ''They felt good about themselves going into the game and they performed.''
Hackenberg has been sacked 36 times this season, so the Spartans have to like their chances of pressuring the passer. But that feeling is mutual. Penn State is averaging four sacks a game, which is tied for the best mark in the country. Nassib has 15 1/2 sacks on the season.
TESTING THE SECONDARY?
Ohio State was criticized for not trying more deep passes against a defensive backfield that's been shaky for Michigan State. Hackenberg - if he has time to throw - figures to take his shots. Penn State leads the Big Ten with 33 plays of 30 or more yards.
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org