Michigan State is struggling these days, and it doesn’t get any easier this weekend when the 3-2 Spartans travel to Penn State (3:30 p.m. ET; TV: Big Ten Network) for a showdown with the Nittany Lions.
Penn State is a two-touchdown favorite, which we would not have seen coming at the beginning of the year. But thus far, the Nittany Lions have performed better than expected and, well, the Spartans have headed in the other direction.
Here are five things I want to see from Michigan State this weekend against Penn State:
1. Pass rush makes a difference from the first whistle
Michigan State’s pass defense is among the worst in the country, and there’s been little doubt that the secondary hasn’t been able to hold up in coverage. The best way to fix that on the fly is the get a better pash rush and keep Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley on the run — or better yet, on the ground. It’s critical that the Spartans don’t let McSorley get comfortable.
2. Top-ranked rush defense makes Penn State one-dimensional
Michigan State’s run defense is ranked No. 1 in the country, but part of that might be because teams give up running so early because it’s just easier to pass. “How we’re playing against the perimeter pass, which is bubbles and jailbreak screens and things like that, that’s a concern,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Because they’ve got to throw that into the run game, because that’s how people are running the ball against us, in some regard. So we look at that aspect and ask ourselves how we’re playing and we work at it.”
3. Brian Lewerke plays a turnover-free game
Quarterback Brian Lewerke hasn’t set the world on fire this year. In five games thus far, he has thrown only six touchdown passes and already has six interceptions. That’s never a good ratio, and what makes it worse is that some of the picks have come at the most inopportune of times. That can’t happen in Happy Valley. Lewerke needs to play a clean game and make some big throws when plays are available, and there will be some chances against this Penn State defense.
4. Something, anything, from the running game helps out
Michigan State is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry so far this season, and that’s awful. It’s hurt a little that running back LJ Scott has missed most of the season, but it’s hurt a lot that a very banged-up offensive line hasn’t been able to be productive all season. This is a game where running the ball well will really have to matter. They need something, at least 4 yards per carry. Breaking a big run or two would be nice, too.
5. Remain confident when things get difficult
The Spartans are at a crossroads in this season, and it could go south in a hurry. It’s up to these guys to stand up and keep battling, and maintain a positive attitude. “I feel like we should be 5-0,” Dantonio said. “My message to our players is: Play like it. Play like we’re 5-0. Keep the same mindset as we go forward.”