Fearless Prediction: Penn State vs. Michigan State
Nothing quite says Land Grant Trophy like a combined 4 wins between Penn State and Michigan State. The behemoth of an award, given to one of the two pioneer land-grant institutions, both established in 1855, weighs in at over 70 pounds and looks like something made in a middle school’s woodshop class. There really couldn’t be a better metaphor for the types of seasons the Nittany Lions and Spartans have had.
“I haven’t evaluated the aesthetics of the trophy. (But) I would like to have it,” Michigan State first-year coach Mel Tucker said this week. “But obviously, they’re not just going to give it to us, so we’re gonna have to earn it. But ugly trophies, ugly babies, you want to have them.”
— Onward State (@OnwardState) December 8, 2020
While the series between the two schools dates to 1914, the Land Grant Trophy wasn’t established until 1993 to celebrate a renewed rivalry as Penn State joined the Big Ten. Penn State is the current holder of the trophy after defeating the Spartans 28-7 in East Lansing last year. The Lions have won the the trophy 15 times to Michigan State’s 9.
There’s usually high stakes stemming from this game, with the winner often in position to compete for a divisional title, but this season is a little different as a win is now needed to propel one of these programs out of the basement of the Big Ten East.
For Penn State, it was a slow start, but the Lions appear to be gaining steam. Consecutive wins over Michigan and Rutgers has restored confidence in the players and a belief that if somehow Penn State qualifies for and wins a bowl game, there’s still a chance to finish the season .500.
Mental mistakes, turnovers and penalties are down in recent weeks. Sean Clifford is beginning to reestablish himself as a trustworthy decision-maker while freshman Keyvone Lee is emerging as one of the biggest pleasant surprises on the roster. Mix in the growth of Parker Washington at the receiver position and the excellent play of young cornerbacks Joey Porter Jr., Daequan Hardy and Keaton Ellis, and the future isn’t quite so bleak.
Michigan State’s season has had it all. From quarterback controversy to a win over a top 10 team and multiple 40-point blowouts, it’s been quite the ride for Tucker in Year 1 since leaving Colorado and replacing Mark Dantonio. There are a few bright spots on the Spartans’ roster, such as linebacker Antjuan Simmons, who ranks 3rd in the B1G with 65 tackles, and wideout Jalen Nailor, who is 8th in the league with 415 receiving yards. But there are also plenty of bad statistics, most notably the conference-leading 11 interceptions thrown.
As for the game itself, Penn State’s defense will likely be in for another banner day a week after its best performance of the season, in which the Lions held Rutgers to just 205 total yards. Michigan State’s run game is one of the worst in the country, averaging fewer than 100 yards per game and just 2.75 per carry.
The only thing going for the Spartans’ offense may be the element of surprise that quarterback Payton Thorne can provide. Thorne replaced starter Rocky Lombardi midway through Michigan State’s 52-12 loss to Ohio State last week and completed 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards. Not a flashy box score by any means, but he was responsible for the most success the Spartans had against the Buckeyes’ defense.
Thorne only has one other game to gather data on. He completed 10 of 20 passes against Indiana for 110 yards. While his potential still remains a large question mark, there’s no doubt that he has a pair of receivers in Nailor and Jayden Reed who are both serious explosive-play threats that the Penn State secondary will have its hands full with. We saw the Lions struggle with speedy receivers in the Maryland and Ohio State games, and Nailor and Reed have that same type of home-run potential.
Defensively, Michigan State is pretty middle of the pack against both pass and rush, so Penn State will likely play to its own strength, which is a heavy dose of ground-and-pound and short throws from Clifford.
I expect this game to look like almost a carbon copy of the Rutgers game for Penn State. The Lions will look to burn the clock with a lot of Lee, Will Levis and Devyn Ford. Save from maybe one big play over the top by Michigan State, Penn State will never feel threatened and will grind out an ugly, yet convincing win to retain the Land Grant Trophy.
FEARLESS PREDICTION: Penn State 24, Michigan State 10