Michigan State football: What's at stake in the final game of the 2021 regular season
Michigan State was doubted after beating Michigan, 37-33, in East Lansing. Lucky calls. Big Ten apologies.
And then the Spartans lost, 40-29, to Purdue; then they were run out of The Shoe by Ohio State, 56-7, this past Saturday. What was once a dream season for Mel Tucker and company has now turned into a worst-case scenario.
Beating Penn State is a must.
Doing so would secure a 10-win season and NY6 bowl berth. Doing so would lessen the sting of being embarrassed by the Buckeyes. And it’d also provide a little bit of credibility: The Spartans weren’t pretenders, they just ran into a red-hot quarterback and the No. 1-ranked offense in the nation this past weekend.
Still a good team, right?
At this point, a 9-3 finish would probably leave a bad taste in the mouth of Michigan State. A 10-win regular-season finish would be much more appealing for a team that, 2 weeks ago, had a Heisman favorite in RB Kenneth Walker III and a legitimate shot at the 4-team College Football Playoff.
Both of those dreams have vanished. Walker didn’t do anything to help his case vs. Ohio State.
On the other side, Penn State was supposed to be better than its 7-4 record. At one point, the Nittany Lions were among 5 Big Ten teams ranked in the Associated Press top-10 standings — a first for any conference in the history of college football.
Today, they’re basking in the glory of a 28-0 win over Rutgers on Saturday. Shutting out a team was a positive sign for Penn State. But something stuck out during that game: Keyvone Lee’s 7-yard rushing TD was Penn State’s longest rushing touchdown of the season.
Something has to be done about that, right?
Finishing the season with a road win at a top-10ish opponent would be a fitting end to an up-and-down season for coach James Franklin. Penn State did nothing to live up to its potential this season, but knocking off the Spartans would certainly be an accomplishment.
So yeah, the game is of major significance to Penn State as well. Franklin wants to end on a high note, and so does Tucker.
The Spartans were, in theory, one game away from a potential CFP berth. Then they were decimated by the Buckeyes, who were up 49-0 at halftime. Penn State, which has struggled, was supposed to be a formality. Now, a win vs. PSU — not that it wasn’t before the OSU loss — becomes mandatory.
If Michigan State wants to regain some respect, it has to prove that Saturday’s shelling by Ohio State was a one-off.
“We all have to be better, everyone on the team,” Spartans QB Payton Thorne said during the post-game press conference, via SpartanMag. “We’re going to have to take a look [at film from the OSU game]. … They really didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It’s not like they threw a whole new defense at us. They played well. Credit to them. They’re good players. But it’s not like they came out with a whole brand-new defense, you know? They played their defense and they were better than us today.”
Regaining confidence and remaining focused on landing in a prestigious bowl game should be the only things on the mind of the Spartans. They can’t lose twice to Ohio State. Learn from mistakes, move on and prepare for the next game — that’s all they can do right now.
But it’s not just the next game. It’s the game that will ultimately be the decider in the court of public opinion: Were the Spartans ever for real this season, or did they just find a way to ride out some luck while the true Big Ten contenders found their bearings? A 9-3 finish would be the biggest piece of supporting evidence for that conjecture.
But a 10-win season would suggest that the Spartans were, indeed, at least the best of the Big Ten’s also-rans.