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Penn State at Michigan State: Five Things to Watch

The Nittany Lions have lost five of their last six games to the Spartans, and must guard against a letdown after last week's emotional "White Out" win.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford grabs Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler in celebration after their team defeated Michigan, 28-21, at Penn State's Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford grabs Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler in celebration after their team defeated Michigan, 28-21, at Penn State's Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Penn State at Michigan State

Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.

  1. TV/Radio: 6ABC; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)

  2. Records: Penn State, 7-0, 4-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 6 in AP poll; Michigan State, 4-3, 2-2.

  3. Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 52-21; 76-36 overall). Michigan State, Mark Dantonio (13th season, 111-54; 129-71 overall).

  4. Series: Michigan State has won five of the last six meetings and holds a 17-15-1 advantage. The Spartans won, 21-17, last year at Beaver Stadium on Brian Lewerke’s touchdown pass with 19 seconds remaining.

Five Things to Watch

Forgetting the past: James Franklin is never one to live in the past but there have to be players and coaches on his team who remember the East Lansing nightmare of two years ago, when lightning in the area delayed play in the second quarter for 3 hours, 24 minutes, and the game ended with Chris Coghlin’s 34-yard walk-off field goal for a 27-24 Nittany Lions loss.

Last year was no better for Penn State fans, who watched Brian Lewerke hit Felton Davis with a 25-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds to play at Beaver Stadium, giving Michigan State a 21-17 victory, the fifth win in its last six games against the Lions.

Franklin said the approach against the Spartans doesn’t deviate from any other team on the schedule, but he admitted, “We’ve got to find a way to get a win against these guys.

“I know as coaches we looked at this in the offseason and said, ‘Enough’s enough.’ We’d better find a way to get this thing done. But they’re a good program and have been for a long time and (head coach Mark Dantonio) is a darn good coach and they’ve done a great job on defense.”

Defending Lewerke: In his third season as the Spartans’ starting quarterback, Lewerke is having an OK year, ranking ninth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, fourth in average passing yards and fifth in total offense. But he is 2-0 against the Nittany Lions, including when he drove his team 76 yards in 1 minute last year without needing to call the one timeout his team had remaining.

In those two wins, Lewerke has completed 53 percent of his passes for 659 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions, plus some clutch scrambles. The Nittany Lions know they need to put pressure on Lewerke. Now it’s just a matter of doing it.

Spartans junior Darrell Stewart is one of the nation’s top receivers, leading the Big Ten with 46 catches and 683 receiving yards.

Guarding against a letdown: Penn State goes from the warmth of the “White Out” and 110,000 screaming fans to the unfriendly confines of Spartan Stadium where it’s expected to be rainy and dreary at kickoff. Franklin made sure this week that the Lions weren’t getting comfortable or satisfied, but were the players listening?

As with all away games, this is Sean Clifford’s first trip to East Lansing as a starter. Though he remains undefeated this season, Clifford’s numbers have dropped the last two weeks against Iowa and Michigan. The Lions are going to need contributions from all their receivers, not just KJ Hamler, to have success.

Getting Hamler free: Speaking of Hamler, the fleet sophomore from Pontiac, Mich., won some battles last week, especially when he was lined up against a safety whom he beat easily on the 53-yard TD pass from Clifford that resulted in the winning points. The Spartans figure to do things a little differently to slow him down, so the Lions have to devise ways to get him open, or involve the other receivers when Hamler is double-teamed.

Finding a balance: Michigan State has allowed more than 30 points in each of its last three games, but it had a week off to regroup. Besides, its defense remains one of the best in the Big Ten, allowing just 314 total yards per game and forcing 12 turnovers. The Nittany Lions must keep them off balance with a mix of run and pass but it can’t abandon the run for long stretches as they did last week.