Penn State Football: After a Week Stuffed with the Offbeat, Now It’s about Michigan State
This week has been stuffed with the offbeat for Penn State football.
But, at last, the attention is where it should be -- on the field Saturday against the Michigan State Spartans.
Here are some of the off-the-field issues that gobbled up the headlines:
1. Joe Paterno, American sports’ most famous (only?) octogenarian, on Tuesday announced he’ll be back in 2011, his 46th season as head coach. That’s just 17 days after winning his 400th game,
(A victory on Saturday against Sparty, and he is just seven wins from passing the late Eddie Robinson for second on the all-time college list.)
2. Sunny skies and temperatures in the low 60s greeted the Nittany Lions less than a week ago, when they were in suburban D.C., playing in a pro stadium under bowl-like circumstances.
Now, it’s more of brrr-like environment. On Saturday, it will feel 40 degrees colder in Beaver Stadium than it was at FedEx Field.
By the 12:01 p.m. kickoff, the rains that have hit Happy Valley hard will have subsided, but cold and stiff winds are expected to roll in. According to AccuWeather.com, it will be 34 degrees and partly sunny, with 20 mph winds pushing the RealFeel temperature to a frigid 20 degrees.
3. A regular season game after Thanksgiving is out of the norm for the Nittany Lions. The last time Penn State played a non-bowl game after Thanksgiving was in 2001. And that was because their early-season game against Virginia was postponed due to 9/11 (an interesting tidbit courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Musselman).
The Lions’ season in 2010 was extended because of their Oct. 16 bye week. The rest did them good – they are 4-1 since then, although the spark provided by quarterback Matt McGloin is probably more than responsible for the streak than anything else.
4. The Penn State players have stayed on campus this week, with no classes, while the fall semester is still in session (10 days of classes in the 15-week semester remain).
That has Paterno concerned.
“I am concerned with it,” he said on Tuesday. “Hopefully we've become mature enough that we can handle some of that.
“These kids have got to understand what a tough game they have ahead of them. They've got to be -- they can't be walking around all over the place. They've got to get their sleep. They've gotta do some homework as far as recognizing what Michigan State can do, when they're going to do it and how they're going to do it. And that takes -- taking some videotapes home and looking at them and those kinds of things.”
5. This one isn’t wacky, but it may have gotten lost in the Paterno shuffle:
Three Nittany Lions were named to ESPN’s Academic All-American first team, more than any other university in the country and three times as many as the entire Big Ten Conference.
Senior guard/center Stefen Wisniewski, a secondary education major, was named to the first team for the third time. Senior linebacker Chris Colasanti, who has a kinesiology/pre-med double major, and sophomore defensive end Pete Massaro, a finance major, were also named to the first team.
Now, onto the game. Both teams have a lot on the line, the Spartans even more so. Here are some of the biggest on-the-field storylines heading into Saturday’s game:
Penn State leads the series, 14-12-1. Penn State is 13-4 against Michigan State since joining the Big Ten in 1993. The teams have been traditional regular-season ending foes since then, with the winner claiming the coveted Land Grant Trophy.
Penn State has won all eight home games against MSU since joining the Big Ten. The last Sparty win in Beaver Stadium was in 1965, a 23-0 victory on Michigan State's way to a 10-1-0 record.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Michigan State (10th in the latest BCS rankings) is playing for the conference championship, which it last won in 1990.
Sparty is 10-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten. Ohio State, which plays Michigan, and Wisconsin, which is facing Northwestern, have the same record as Michigan State. Since the Buckeyes and Badgers are ranked higher in the BCS, the Spartans’ only sure way to win the conference crown outright is by beating Penn State and the other two teams losing.
The Nittany Lions, at 7-4 and 4-3, are playing for a lot less. They’ll go bowling regardless of what happens, maybe even to the Gator Bowl with a loss. But an upset – MSU is 1-1/2-point favorite -- will mean they won five of their last six games after a desultory 3-3 start. That provides a good deal of momentum going into 2011.
A loss, and Penn State goes 7-5, with nary a quality win. The 41-31 win over Michigan, ranked No. 25 at the time but now with 7-04 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten, would have to suffice. If the Lions lose, they could fall into a fifth-place tie. The best they could finish is fourth.
“Michigan State plays a very aggressive game, very intelligent football team, very disciplined, very well coached,” said Paterno. “I think Michigan State is one of the 10 best teams in the country.
“I think they've proven that by some of the wins they've had, the way they've handled a couple of situations where they had tremendous adversity and came back.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has a 32-18 record in four seasons at Michigan State. He is the first coach in MSU history to win at least nine games twice in four seasons. He’s 1-2 against Penn State.
Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack after the Spartans’ 34-31 overtime win against Notre Dame in the third game of the season. After being released from the hospital, he went back in with a blood clot in his leg. He missed the next two games, but was back for the Michigan game, which Michigan State won 34-17.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins paces a potent Michigan passing attack that averages 244 yards per game. He’s completed 199 of 298 passes for 2,553 yards, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
“Cousins is overall probably as good a quarterback as we're going to play,” Paterno said. “He's smart. He's accurate. He doesn't give you easy passes. And they've got two or three receivers that are outstanding.”
Cousin’s top targets are Mark Dell (49 catches, 15.5 ave.) and B.J. Cunningham (47 catches, 12.3 yards).
Edwin Baker, who has rushed for 1,069 yards, has a 6.4-yard rushing average with 12 TDs. He’s backed up by Le’Veon Bell, who’s run for 592 yards, a 5.7-yard average, and eight touchdowns.
The defense is led by senior Greg Jones, who is semifinalist for the Butkus Award, presented to the country’s best linebacker. He leads Michigan in tackles (95), tackles for losses (eight for 18 yards) and forced fumbles (three).
He anchors a Spartan defense that ranks third in the Big Ten and No. 23 in the BCS in rushing defense, allowing 125.4 yards, and surrenders 19.9 points per game. Sparty is a bit vulnerable in the air, allowing 207 yards per game.
“Defensively, they've become very, very aggressive,” Paterno said. “They know what they're doing. And they don't do stupid things and you've got to block them. You've got to block them every play. And sometimes that's not the easiest thing in the world to do.”
We’ll find out how easy on Saturday.