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Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan State Spartans: Preview, predictions and prognostications

When: Sat. Nov 28; 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: East Lansing, MI; Spartan Stadium (75,005)
TV: ESPN
All-Time Series: Tied 14-14-1
Last Meeting: Michigan State won 34-10 (2014)
Line: Michigan State -11

Here we go. This one couldn’t be any bigger for Michigan State, as a win puts them into the Big Ten Championship Game opposite of Iowa. Win from there, and the Spartans are a likely candidate to get invited to the College Football Playoff. Lose and Michigan State will be staying home and asking the question “what if.” But is Connor Cook healthy and full go, or will it be another vanilla game plan?

For Penn State, it’s time to make a statement, or continue to be on the second rung in the Big Ten East. The program has kept its head above water through the NCAA sanctions, but coming out of the cloud, it’s time for head coach James Franklin to start elevating the program to where it rightfully belongs. The defense has been solid, but the offense has misfired far too often to keep up their end of the bargain.

1 Burning Question: What Role Will Connor Cook Play

Is he playing and at close to 100 percent or not? He was never going to play against Ohio State, but the coaching staff kept it under wraps and devised a game plan that, in combination with the weather, allowed the Spartan line to dominate. Now that the cat’s out of the bag on how they’ll play without Cook, it’ll be harder to duplicate against a tough Penn State defensive line. This one could be closer than you think.

2 Key Stats:

— 6.1. That’s the per carry average for Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. When he’s getting the ball enough, he’s a difference maker. Not only does he provide some stability and game-breaking ability on the ground, but it opens things up through the air for Christian Hackenberg. He’ll be going against a very athletic MSU defensive front, so he’ll need to come to play.

— 48.7%. It’s the 3rd down conversion rate for the Spartan’s offense. The offense hasn’t been as explosive as last year, but converting third downs has been a strength for the team all year. Converting third downs keeps the offense in game-control mode and allows the defense to rest. How MSU does in getting first downs in this one could be the difference in this one.

3 Key Players:

Connor Cook, Michigan State QB: Uh, yeah. If Connor Cook can go, and be his explosive self, this game is likely over. If not, Penn State will have a puncher’s chance to spring the upset and make either Columbus, Ohio or Ann Arbor, Michigan very, very happy. He can sling it, and he’ll need to against a very solid defensive front seven.

Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB: He has to have a monster game. If he doesn’t, that means the Spartan defensive linen is controlling the game like it did in Columbus, and it also means that Christian Hackenberg will have a hard time picking out receivers. Without a running game, the Nittany Lions are dead in the water.

Carl Nassib, Penn State DE: Whether Cook plays or not, Nassib has to be a monster and get into the backfield early and often to disrupt the timing of the passing game, and to throw off the rhythm of the running game. If he isn’t getting off blocks and making plays, he’s got to al least occupy more than one defender to free up others to make plays.

4 Bold Prognostications:

— Penn State will make a game of it. Connor Cook will play some, but won’t be as productive as he has been at times this year. Despite the win over OSU last week, MSU will also show some lethargy because of the physicality of the game in Columbus. The Nittany Lions will slow down the Spartan offense just enough and make some plays on offense here and there to keep this game close.

— Saquon Barkley will go over 100 yards. The Michigan State defensive line was great at Ohio State and has controlled things up front most of the season. But it’s beat up from last week despite what anyone says, and Barkley’s power and speed will find some running room and get some things cooking on the ground.

— Christian Hackenberg will throw at least two touchdown passes. The Michigan State secondary has been torched all season, but because of the weather, Ohio State never got a chance to test it. It’ll be different this go around. Hackeberg won’t get all day to throw, but he’ll be able to pick out receivers in the red zone at least a couple of times and strike gold.

— Special teams will be huge. In a slugfest like this one looks to be, field position and the kicking game always seem to be a big part of the game. Somewhere along the way, there will be a big return, or a blocked kick somewhere that will turn the tide in the game.

5 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Michigan State 24-17 (82-23 overall; 50-54 ATS)
Dave: Michigan State 28-24 (86-19 overall; 56-47 ATS)
Greg: Michigan State 24-13 (79-26 overall; 61-42 ATS)
Matt: Michigan State 27-17 (83-22 overall; 58-45 ATS)
Phil: Michigan State 27-17 (38-14 overall; 19-30 ATS) *joined in Week 5

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