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Michigan State 30, Penn State 27: Instant analysis of a frustrating day in the snow for the Nittany Lions

In a game where the snow got heavier later in the day, the Nittany Lions were unable to capitalize on the weak Spartans' defense and could not finish drives on offense, a common theme this season

Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III (9) rushes for a touchdown against Penn State's Jaquan Brisker (1) during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich.
Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III (9) rushes for a touchdown against Penn State's Jaquan Brisker (1) during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich.Read moreAl Goldis / AP

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Spartan Stadium became a winter wonderland as day turned into night Saturday, but Penn State was in no mood to frolic.

The Nittany Lions found themselves unable to get off the field on defense and managed only two touchdowns on offense until the final minute despite playing against the nation’s worst pass defense, and closed their regular season with a 30-27 loss to No. 12 Michigan State.

The Lions (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten), who yielded possession of the Land Grant Trophy, will wait until next Sunday to see where they will play in a bowl game.

The snow might have been pretty, but the Lions’ performance wasn’t. They were down 14-0 early, tied it quickly with two touchdowns, both coming on passes from Sean Clifford to Jahan Dotson, in a span of just over six minutes in the first half and didn’t score again on offense the rest of the day until Clifford connected on a 20-yard pass to Parker Washington with 43 seconds to play.

Penn State took its only lead of the day thanks to the defense, with Daequan Hardy returning an interception 17 yards for the score early in the third quarter that made it 20-17. But the Spartans (10-2, 7-2) regained the advantage for good, 23-20, late in the third quarter on a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Payton Thorne, ending a drive that took almost 9 minutes.

The Nittany Lions responded by driving to the Michigan State 16, but Keyvone Lee was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-2. Penn State’s next march ended in a fumble by Lee that the Spartans recovered at the Lions’ 48, leading to a clinching 20-yard TD pass from Thorne to Jayden Reed with 5 minutes, 10 seconds to play.

Clifford completed 23 of 34 passes in the harsh elements, good for 313 yards and the three touchdowns. Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III rushed for 138 yards in 30 carries and one touchdown. The Spartans outgained the Nittany Lions, 451-374.

Four of Penn State’s five losses have been by four points or less.

“It’s tough knowing that almost every loss we’ve had, we’ve come within one possession in the games,” Dotson said. “It really points back to the little details. That’s where games are won or lost when it’s that close. Both teams are very good. It’s whoever capitalizes and makes sure that they don’t mess up on the little details. We didn’t play a perfect game, made some mistakes out there that we can’t make against a good team like Michigan State.”

The defense didn’t rest

The Penn State defense had its share of problems trying to get off the field against the Spartans, whose ability to grind out drives was the most significant part of the game. After the Nittany Lions tied the game at 14 early in the second quarter, Michigan State held the football for more than 6 minutes and kicked a short field goal. The pick-6 by Hardy in the third quarter gave the Lions momentum, but the Spartans held the ball for 15 more plays, covering almost 9 minutes, and got a touchdown by Thorne.

The Spartans went 9-of-18 on third-down conversions, 3-of-4 on fourth down conversions, ran 77 offensive plays to 60 for Penn State, and held the ball for almost 37 minutes.

What’s with the offense?

After a slow start, the Lions found their stride late in the first quarter with Clifford hitting Dotson on a 27-yard pass for their first touchdown, and the long-time batterymates came up with the second, a 30-yard score, just a short time later. Penn State had a chance to tie the game at 17 before halftime but Jordan Stout was wide right on a 27-yard field goal try.

But that was it for the offense. The Lions had 211 total yards in the first half but had only 86 more for much of the second half before Clifford led them on a 77-yard touchdown drive in the closing moments, sparked by a 25-yard completion to Brenton Strange on a fourth-and-23 from his 9.

Lee rushed for 79 yards and had runs of 33 and 18 yards but coughed up the key fumble in the fourth quarter.

Romping in the snow

You knew it was going to be a rough day when a missed tackle by Penn State on the fourth play of the game led to a 40-yard gain for Michigan State receiver Maliq Carr. The snow, which increased in intensity throughout the first half and much of the second, made it a skating rink for would-be tacklers and skill players trying to make a cut. Walker hit the corner at the 5-yard line and appeared he would score, but he planted his left foot to turn up the sideline and down he went. His team eventually settled for a field goal. The same thing happened with Dotson in the left flat inside the 10, catching a pass one-on-one with a defender and slipping when he tried to cut.

The amazing Dotson

With Michigan State’s secondary ranking dead last in FBS in pass defense entering the game, the Nittany Lions took advantage, and who better to capitalize than Dotson. The sensational wide receiver made terrific back-to-back catches leading to the first touchdown in the opening quarter, including extending to catch a pass along the right sideline and managing to get the ball inside the pylon before going down. His second TD found him 10 yards open on a slant and home free for a 30-yard score. He finished with eight catches for 137 yards.