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Penn State-Michigan State preview: Will the Nittany Lions exploit the Spartans’ leaky secondary?

The game features two head coaches who just agreed to new, 10-year megabucks contracts. The Nittany Lions likely will take advantage of a Spartans secondary that ranks last in FBS.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throws while being pressured by Michigan defenders Josh Ross (12) and Mike Morris (90) during a game Nov. 13. Clifford could be in for a big game against a struggling Michigan State pass defense this Saturday.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throws while being pressured by Michigan defenders Josh Ross (12) and Mike Morris (90) during a game Nov. 13. Clifford could be in for a big game against a struggling Michigan State pass defense this Saturday.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Talk about a coincidence.

Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker enter Saturday’s game at Spartan Stadium after agreeing to terms this same week on 10-year contracts to continue into the next decade as the head coach of their respective programs.

Tucker’s deal is worth $95 million, with his yearly average trailing only Alabama head coach Nick Saban, one of his mentors. Franklin’s is worth $75 million — $85 million if you include an annual $1 million loan for life insurance — and that’s not too shabby a number, either.

Both contracts were negotiated with the assistance of agent Jimmy Sexton, whom Franklin hired last summer. So instead of the Nittany Lions and Spartans playing for the Land Grant Trophy, maybe they could call it the Sexton Bowl.

For weeks, Franklin had been mentioned in published reports as a prominent candidate for the head coaching jobs at Southern California and Louisiana State. At times he appeared distracted, a theory enhanced by a 1-4 record over a five-game stretch, including a dismal nine-overtime loss last month at home to Illinois.

As it turned out, according to Franklin, he and the university administration began conversations nine weeks ago about making a long-term investment in the football program, and determining what resources would be needed to be competitive at a high level.

At his weekly media availability Wednesday, Franklin, who will be coaching Saturday in his 100th game at Penn State, said he told his players and his recruits about the contract agreement “about a week ago,” andkept his Leadership Council, made up of players from each class, informed along the way.

“It’s kind of been a moving target for a long time,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they heard it first. As you guys know, I’ve been talking to the Leadership Council the whole time.”

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What to expect

The sieve secondary. The fact that Michigan State ranks dead last in FBS in pass defense at 339.9 yards allowed per game — nearly 34 yards worse than the team directly above it — is incredible when you figure the Spartans were ranked No. 3 in the initial College Football Playoff ranking on Nov. 2. Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell later torched them for 536 yards, and Ohio State’s Chris Stroud threw six TD passes on the Buckeyes’ first six possessions in last week’s 56-7 loss for the Spartans and finished 32 of 35 for 432 yards. Michigan State has yielded 23 touchdown passes and is last in the Big Ten in total defense at 463.4 yards per game.

Don’t get extreme. Seeing these numbers would lend credibility to the thought that the Nittany Lions, ranked fourth in the conference in passing yardage, would strike through the air not only early and often, but always. Franklin dismissed that theory at his Tuesday news conference, saying, “You just don’t want to skew too far in one direction. You want to continue to commit to the run game and be balanced.” Sean Clifford is expected back at quarterback after not making it through the first quarter last week due to the flu. The one concern in the pass game is protection. Penn State has allowed 28 sacks, 13th in the Big Ten, while Michigan State is second in the league with 34 sacks.

The other guys

The Spartans’ Heisman candidate. Kenneth Walker III has been remarkable throughout the regular season and enters the final week second in FBS with 1,498 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. However, he carried the ball just six times last week against Ohio State and is said to be nursing a sore left ankle. He averages 6.4 yards per rush and has 19 runs of 20 or more yards. The Lions defense is seventh in the Big Ten (131.7 yards per game) against the rush but has allowed an opposition running back more than 150 yards on the ground three times in the last five games, led by Illinois’ Chase Brown (33 carries, 223 yards) five weeks ago.

Multitalented Reed. Spartans junior wide receiver Jaylen Reed wore a boot on the sideline and did not play in the second half last week against Ohio State. However, if he is good enough to go Saturday, he will be a threat. Reed has caught 47 passes for 857 yards (18.2-yard average) and seven touchdowns. He has scored twice on punt returns, with a long of 88 yards, and has returned 16 kickoffs for an average of 23.5 yards. Reed and quarterback Payton Thorne have been teammates since middle school and have a knack for coming up with the big play when needed.

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What to watch for

Sick bay. The Nittany Lions had 35 players with the flu on the morning of last week’s Rutgers game and 21 had to sit out. On Wednesday, Franklin said some players were continuing to fight through the virus and a few more had shown symptoms since Saturday but added, “We’re in a much better position than we were last week.” Franklin had to do a lot of juggling along the offensive line and it is not known whether any of the three sidelined starters — tackles Rasheed Walker and Caeden Wallace, and center Mike Miranda — would be well enough to return. The Lions also would love to have back starting linebacker Curtis Jacobs.

Finding the “Mo.” Since defeating Wisconsin and Auburn early in the season, Penn State has fallen short against the other ranked teams on their schedule, losing to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan. It has one more chance against the Spartans before going into the stretch that coaches love — having extra practices while preparing for a bowl game and working on developing younger players who will have a role in the future. Success at the end of the regular season and in the bowl will have everyone in a good frame of mind heading into the offseason.

Prediction: Penn State 34, Michigan State 31