Penn State football: What's at stake in season finale vs. Michigan State?
Though the worst of the critics won’t be swayed, James Franklin is enjoying a bounce-back season at Penn State. But there remains a final potential pothole on the road to redemption.
The Nittany Lions must beat hemorrhaging nemesis Michigan State, and the Land Grant Trophy is the least of the spoils at stake for Franklin and his up-and-coming squad.
Fans’ wrath simmers over Franklin’s 9-year record against Big Ten East stalwarts Ohio State (1-8) and Michigan (3-6). But it will boil over if the Spartans win as underdogs against the Lions for the 4th time in 6 years.
With Penn State (9-2, 6-2) poised the rejoin the top 10 in the polls and CFP rankings, the program has all kinds of things to play for on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium, while the Spartans (5-6, 3-5) will make a last-ditch effort for bowl eligibility.
Here’s a list of good things that could come Penn State’s way Saturday:
Putting Spartans in their place
Penn State suffered hangover losses to MSU in 2017 and 2018, and fell 30-27 last year in the snow in East Lansing. Those were all bad losses for Franklin. Some of the losses to the Buckeyes and Wolverines have been frustrating, but those are top programs in the country, as evidenced by each sitting at 11-0 right now. Michigan State is not such a program.
If Penn State wants to re-establish itself in the B1G’s big 3, it needs to put MSU in its place — its place being 4th place, at best, in the league’s East Division.
The Lions cannot lose to a team coming off a loss to 4-7 Indiana that followed a narrow win over Rutgers. The Lions haven’t won by less than 31 points in their dominant November run, knocking off the Hoosiers and Scarlet Knights around their 30-0 shutout of Maryland.
Franklin has a chance to finish a season without a baffling upset loss for the first time since before 6th-year quarterback Sean Clifford joined the roster.
A win would also pull Penn State even in the all-time series at 18-18-1. If the program is going to promote itself as “Unrivaled,” it needs to start dominating this contrived rivalry unless and until the Big Ten does away with divisions. Penn State is 16-10 in the series since joining the conference, but Franklin is 3-5. It’s time to start changing that narrative by kicking Mel Tucker and the Spartans while they’re down.
Ranking, bowl, 2023 starting point
Given what happened to Tennessee a day ago (63-38 loss to South Carolina), Penn State will be in the top 10 entering Saturday’s game. With a 9th double-digit win this season, the Lions could climb another couple rungs.
A New Year’s 6 bowl seems more and more likely, and the Rose Bowl remains a possibility.
Given the outstanding play of the freshman class and other young players, the Lions should enter next fall ranked in the top 10 rather than unranked like they were entering this campaign. Saturday is probably the final hurdle in that regard. Reaching double-digits in wins for the 4th time in 6 full seasons will be hard to ignore.
Records and milestones
With a victory, the 24-year-old Clifford would tie predecessor Trace McSorley for the program record with 31 wins as the Lions’ starting quarterback.
On the other end of the age spectrum, freshman running back Nick Singleton needs 137 yards to become Penn State’s first 1,000-yard back since Miles Sanders in 2018. Fellow freshman Kaytron Allen is 252 yards from the milestone, giving the program a chance to have 2 backs hit the mark in the same season for the first time. Singleton could hit the mark with a big game Saturday, while Allen could move into range ahead of Penn State’s bowl game.
On defense, Penn State moved to the top of the Big Ten in sacks at 33 after registering 4 against Rutgers. It can maintain or extend its 2-sack lead on Michigan by adding to its November total of 17 against Payton Thorne and the Spartans. The Lions need 12 tackles for loss to reach 100 in a season for the first time since 2019. They lead the B1G in that category too.
First-year DC Manny Diaz could put another bullet point on his Broyles Award resume by sicking star freshman linebacker Abdul Carter and the rest of his deep, highly aggressive unit on Thorne and the Spartans.
Saluting the seniors
Key defensive players Ji’Ayir Brown, PJ Mustipher and Jonathan Sutherland will play their final game in Beaver Stadium, joining Clifford, transfer receiver Mitchell Tinsley and 2 key special teams players in that regard. Punter/holder Barney Amor and long snapper Chris Stoll will be missed more than many people might realize.
Fans will also be watching for clues about key players who are eligible for the NFL Draft. They’ll be checking to see if corner Joey Porter Jr. and/or left tackle Olu Fashanu return from injury — or participate in farewell ceremonies.
Penn State will look to boast a paid attendance of better than 108,000 for a 4th straight home game to send the seniors off properly and root the squad on to a prestigious warm-weather bowl.
Saturday can be — and should be — a very good day for Franklin, the players and the future of the program.