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

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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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Report: Danton Cole hired as Michigan State hockey coach

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It took a bit longer than expected, but the Michigan State Spartans have their new men’s hockey head coach. That name should be a familiar one to fans of the program, as former MSU player Danton Cole has been hired. 

The news was broken by SpartanNation.com ($).

Cole comes to the Spartans after heading up the United State National Developmental Team this past season. He is also a former Stanley Cup winner in the NHL, hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup with the New Jersey Red Devils in 1995.

The Detroit Free Press reached out to Cole, but he did not respond to calls or texts regarding the report from Spartan Nation.

Early on in the process of replacing Tom Anastos as the head coach, Cole had emerged as a real possibility. His name was thrown around behind the scenes, but it took until after the just completed Frozen Four in Chicago this weekend to make this hire.

Michigan State has not officially announced the hire, but our sources have also been able to confirm that Cole has long been the front-runner for the job and has accepted an offer.

Not only is Cole a former Michigan State skater, he was part of the 1986 national championship squad and has extensive ties to the junior hockey game. Previous to his stint at the helm of the U.S. NTDP U-18 squad, he was also the coach for Grand Rapids in the IHL and Muskegon in the USHL.

Those ties to the younger side of the game and the professional ranks added in with his ties to the Spartans program made him a prime candidate for this job.

Former MSU assistant and long-time Denver head coach George Gwozdecky had also been considered a front-runner and it may be interesting to see if he will get involved in this staff in some capacity.

Since his ouster at Denver, Gwozdecky has been the coach of a prep team in Colorado. However, will he want to get back in the college game as an assistant at this point in his career?

Look for the Spartans to make the hire of Cole official sooner rather than later.

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What to expect from 2017 Michigan State Spartans spring football game

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Believe it or not, the Big Ten’s first spring football game is about to commence on Saturday afternoon. It will be the annual Green-White game for the Michigan State Spartans. 

However, this isn’t going to be an ordinary spring game. That is impossible thanks to a lingering sexual assault investigation that has led on an unprecedented media blackout. To say things in East Lansing are tense right now may be an understatement.

What that means heading in to Saturday’s spring game is that those of us in the media literally know next to nothing about this team on the field. Luckily we do know that even with an ongoing sexual assault investigation the show will go on.

Head coach Mark Dantonio made it clear that there was thought of canceling the spring game, but there were other factors like not penalizing those who aren’t under investigation and giving the kids that were scheduled to come in as part of a youth clinic a chance to be a part of this.

So, there won’t be a lot we really know heading in to the scrimmage on Saturday. That doesn’t mean we can’t and won’t have expectations though. Here are three things we’ll expect to see and hear coming out of Saturday’s game.

Speculation Will Run Wild

There is no way to avoid it, speculation is going to run wild about which three players not on the field are the ones involved in the sexual assault allegations. Players aren’t going to be avoiding wearing their numbers and Dantonio has made it clear that there will be a group sitting this game out besides the three being investigated.

News reporters are not NOT going to report on those players who aren’t in uniform. That would be journalistic suicide and a clear dereliction of duty. However, only if the investigation brings up charges will the actual three names be confirmed.

Those of us in the media have the names, but it simply isn’t right or smart to release them until/if they are actually charged with a crime. It stinks that other players sitting out for suspension or other reasons are going to be lumped in to speculation, but it is inevitable when you pair curiosity with a public event like the spring game.

After 14 practices of hiding behind closed doors and not even a single internal production crew allowed around the team, this will be the first time seeing this team. Even if speculation over the three players isn’t the biggest headline, there’s a month or more of built up curiosity regarding the team on the field to deal with.

What fans and the media sees on Saturday afternoon will be the only judgement they can make for an entire offseason. It will certainly all boil down to speculation from here until August at the very least.

Quarterback Battle Takes Center Stage

No single position was as big of a mess in 2016 as that of the quarterback. It is a large part, although certainly not all, of the reason Michigan State limped to its worst record on the field since 2006 when the Spartans went 4-8.

This position may have been better had former walk-on sophomore Brian Lewerke not spent most of the season in a boot after breaking his leg. He seemed to steady the ship, finishing the year completing 54.4 percent of his passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns in four games of play.

Stats can be misleading, and given the multiple-quarterback situation for MSU last season, Lewerke’s stats are exactly that. Dantonio had enough confidence to name him the frontrunner for the starting job in 2017.

That doesn’t mean it will just be handed to him though. Senior Damion Terry seemed to slip down the depth chart quickly last season and this is his last shot. Meanwhile, highly touted redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver showed some big time promise in spring and fall camp last season.

Given Terry is injury-prone and deWeaver is still learning the offense inside-out, Lewerke seems like the logical choice. But, we haven’t seen 14 practices of work and perhaps Terry has shown the consistency of the Penn State game to wow the coaching staff. Then again, maybe deWeaver has commanded the offense well enough to put himself in the mix given his natural arm abilities?

You can bet that quarterback is going to be talked about one way or the other. Either a starter will emerge or the picture will be blurry and the problems of 2016 could plague this team again.

Is the Defense Back?

The old adage is that a defense is always ahead of an offense at this stage in a season. It’s true to some extent, but given the disaster that was a 3-9 season last year, this offseason isn’t going to be about installing offensive schemes or defensive wrinkles. It should have been (and likely was) all about competition across the board.

Michigan State’s annual spring game also provides for some of the best on-field competition we see every year. The captains picking players and the competitive nature of the game lends itself to being intriguing.

That also means we’re likely to get a good idea of just how competitive this defense looks after it got beat up time and again last season. Plenty of new faces will be in new places thanks to graduations, early NFL draft entry or transfers. Can this defense show it is on the road to becoming the dominant group we’ve been used to seeing under Dantonio?

Perhaps the biggest thing is to know that there is a clear-cut leader or three emerging from the spring to bring this unit together. If the spring game doesn’t show that, maybe it is time to worry about the Spartans ability to bounce back immediately this season.

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Dantonio won’t put Michigan State football ahead of seriousness of sexual assault allegations against players

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Michigan State Spartans football will come out of the dark and play football in front of other people for the first time on Saturday in the annual Green-White spring game. 

On Tuesday, head coach Mark Dantonio spoke to the media for the first time in a long time. There were no questions about what has been happening on the field, and given an ongoing sexual assault investigation, that shouldn’t be surprising.

It was also just how Dantonio would have it, as he made it abundantly clear just how serious he and the entire athletic administration is taking this case.

At one point Dantonio noted that talking about “who would be the starting quarterback” just didn’t seem right considering the seriousness of what is happening off the field.

Unlike the Baylor debacle, Dantonio and Co. have struck the right tone here. It is clear they are serious about the situation at hand and won’t put football in the spotlight until all of this gets resolved.

It was also clear that Dantonio and Co. fully expected this investigation to have been completed by now. Otherwise, why wait nearly a month after releasing a press statement to come and talk about an investigation that is still ongoing.

That is something that could’ve been done weeks ago had there been any clue this investigation would be dragging on to this point. It also could’ve meant that this press conference could’ve been about what to expect from his team on Saturday.

As for that resolution, no one seems to know when it will actually come. It is all in the hands of the local district attorney’s office. Once the decision, whether to charge or not, is made, Michigan State football will get back to talking about football again.

Until then, perhaps Saturday will help the players showcase the chemistry that Dantonio talked about emerging thanks to this awful situation.

Just don’t expect Saturday to prove who is or isn’t under the cloud of investigation, as Dantonio hinted that other players besides the three suspended amidst this sexual assault investigation won’t be participating on Saturday as well.

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It is March, which must mean Michigan State is awake

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Michigan State is known for its exploits in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. That is no different this year as this young team has suddenly grown up.

Michigan State was on the bubble, but not really on the bubble entering the Big Ten Tournament.

Tom Izzo had his team play an extremely difficult schedule and pick up several nice wins. But the Spartans lost their fair share and were not in their familiar position. Their 19 wins were the fewest for the Spartans since the 2004 season. And, despite finishing fifth in the conference, Michigan State’s 10 conference wins are the fewest since 2011.

The Spartans entered the Big Ten Tournament in and likely in even with a loss in the second round Thursday. But still a bit uneasy. Michigan State’s success in March is well documented and this is, quite simply not that team.

Tom Izzo has led a young team with a lot of freshman who had to learn the ropes in the Big Ten.

There were growing pains and uncertainty.

This is March. This where Spartans mature. This is where Tom Izzo makes noise. And even this young Michigan State team is not going to do that legacy wrong.

Penn State upset Michigan State earlier in the season. The Nittany Lions never got the opportunity to do so again. Tom Izzo worked his magic for the tournament and had Michigan State playing up to tits fullest potential. The Spartans, facing a Golden Gophers team the Spartans have beaten twice already this year in the quarterfinals Friday, suddenly look like they could make some serious noise.

The damage to Penn State in Thursday’s second round matchup at Verizon Center was devastating.

Michigan State won comfortably 78-51, holding Penn State to 29.1 percent. The Nittany Lions fell behind by 18 at halftime and never made a serious run in the second half. The Spartans toyed with their opponent all game long.

Freshmen Nick Ward and Miles Bridges each had 15 points and nine rebounds. Michigan State had 19 assists on 28 field goal makes, hitting on 49.1 percent of the team’s shots. The Spartans made 10 of 22 3-pointers. Tum Tum Nairn recorded nine assists.

Michigan State dominated the game thoroughly. The Spartans dominated in the way they envisioned winnig games earlier in the year. Michigan State had seemingly grown up.

This is what Tom Izzo teams do. They peak in March. They thrive in these tournament settings. It is hard not to have that familiar feeling when it comes to the team wearing green in March during the Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan State does this seemingly every year. It really should not be a surprise.

It is a testament to Izzo’s coaching every year. His failures in March — like last year’s surprising first-round exit — are few. And Michigan State tends to thrive as the underdog.

There were plenty doubting whether Michigan State could grow up in time to performe this March. Penn State is not the strongest opponent. But it was hard not to be impressed.

And when it comes to the NCAA Tournament next week, Michigan State is a team no one wants to see.

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