Strong start will go a long way on a big day for Nittany Lions

Penn State fans could find their team headed to the Big Ten title game next weekend with a win and Michigan loss.

Penn State fans could find their team headed to the Big Ten title game next weekend with a win and Michigan loss.

Five things to look for as Penn State looks to take care of its end of the bargain today against Michigan State to try and earn a trip to the Big Ten championship game.

No. 1: Come out sharp

As Neil Rudel points out in his column, the Nittany Lions’ focus will be put to the test with the Ohio State-Michigan game being played at noon. How the Lions respond mentally — whoever wins the first game — is really the No. 1 key today.

More than merely focus, though, Penn State needs to play a strong first half. For all the things the team has done very well this season, coming out and playing two solid quarters to start games generally has not been one of them.

As James Franklin has said, he doesn’t want this to be known as a second-half team. Adjustments and big third quarters are great, but at some point the mediocre starts eventually could cost PSU.

Michigan State is just the kind of opponent that could take advantage of it.

The Spartans have nothing more to play for today than to ruin Penn State’s season. That might seem unthinkable from a team that’s 3-8 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten, but the Spartans at times have shown a good enough defense and running game to keep this close today.

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead should look for some knockout punches early in the game with shots deep down the field to see if the Lions can get some quick scores. Because no matter how much pride the Spartans hope to show today, they are still a 3-8 team that’s on the road and could fold mentally themselves if they get down early.

No. 2: Stop the run

The Spartans don’t have a very good offense, but they do have a very good running back in 230-pounder L.J. Scott, who had 160 yards on only 19 carries last week against Ohio State.

The formula is easy: Load up the box to stop Scott and make Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor have to throw the ball.

The Lions’ front seven has done an excellent job against the run the second half of the season. If it can do so again today, PSU should win going away.

No. 3: Not rocket science

When asked about Michigan State being unpredictable earlier this week, PSU coach James Franklin countered and called the Spartans “predictable.” That wasn’t a slight, but a matter-of-fact description of the opponent under coach Mark Dantonio.

Franklin and everyone else pretty much know what Michigan State will try to do on both sides of the ball. It will play hard-nosed football and look to win at the line of scrimmage.

Games like this often come down to toughness and sheer will power in the trenches.

The concern for PSU could be on the offensive line, which still has question marks because of all the shuffling brought about by injuries.

Dantonio and his staff know that’s where the Lions are most vulnerable, so look for them to try and exploit it.

No. 4: Be ready for anything

The Spartans have nothing to lose. They’re not going to a bowl game. This is their last shot.

Don’t be surprised if they go for it on fourth down a few times, take chances, try a fake punt or field goal, go for 2 after touchdowns. Penn State’s defense and coaches need to be prepared for all of those crazy variables.

No. 5: Players to watch

PSU: QB Trace McSorley must play well, since Michigan State’s defense undoubtedly will do everything it can to stop Saquon Barkley. McSorley’s completion percentage hasn’t been good the second half of the season — in part because of all the deep shots he takes — and he needs to be accurate today.

Michigan State: There doesn’t seem to be much chance the Spartans can win this game unless QB Tyler O’Connor plays very well. The Spartans have suffered a huge dropoff in production from Connor Cook to O’Connor, and that’s as big of a reason as any for their collapse this year.

Prediction: PSU, 27-17.

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