EAST LANSING, Mich. - When Penn State scored just before halftime Saturday at Spartan Stadium to cut into its deficit against No. 6 Michigan State, the Nittany Lions ran to the locker room with some optimism, and their newfound fans from Ohio State had a reason to be encouraged.
But in the second half, the Nittany Lions played terribly, perhaps their worst half of the two-year James Franklin era, and the Spartans showed why they deserved to go to the Big Ten championship game.
Michigan State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) won going away, 55-16, to take the conference's East Division title and advance to next Saturday's game against Iowa, in which the winner likely will move on to the College Football Playoff.
Penn State (7-5, 4-4), meanwhile, was left trying to figure out why it went 0-for-November against three ranked teams with an offense that couldn't finish drives and a defense that wore down amid a rash of injuries.
The Nittany Lions turned the ball over four times and two directly led to touchdowns - safety Demetrious Cox's 77-yard fumble return in the second quarter and nose tackle Malik McDowell's 13-yard interception runback in the fourth.
Two other turnovers led to touchdowns, including a 9-yard run by 296-pound starting center Jack Allen just eight seconds after the McDowell return.
"We were able to move the ball, but we made critical errors," said Franklin, now 0-7 against ranked teams - at the time the Lions played them - at Penn State. "You can't turn the ball over on the road against a top team like that. The turnovers hurt us early and late. Those things are going to make it difficult for you to be successful.
"It's hard to take a whole lot of positives out of that."
The Lions did pick up 418 yards of total offense, and Saquon Barkley rushed 17 times for 103 yards to set a program record for most rushing yards in a season by a freshman, with 1,007. But the turnover train started early - Christian Hackenberg threw an interception in the end zone on the game's fourth play, and that led to the first of three touchdown passes by Connor Cook.
"We were moving the ball well on offense, but we kept making mistakes, and you can't self-destruct like that," center Angelo Mangiro said. "We had a productive offensive game, but you can't turn the ball over like that in a Big Ten away game."
Cook, who missed last week's win over Ohio State with a shoulder injury, was comfortable in the pocket the entire game. The Nittany Lions, who were tied for the most sacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 44 and riding a 38-game streak of at least one sack, did not record any. Cook said he wasn't hit all day.
West Chester's Carl Nassib, the nation's leader in sacks, again tried to contribute but left the game for the second straight week after just two plays. ESPN reported the defensive end had a hamstring problem; Penn State does not comment on injuries.
Penn State's other starting defensive end, Garrett Sickels, did not make the trip because of injury.
"We've been able to put pressure pretty much on everybody all year," Franklin said. "When you take your two starting defensive ends off your unit, that's going to have an effect. You'd love for someone to step up in that role. It had a big effect on us."
Cox's scoop and runback of a Kyle Carter fumble gave Michigan State a 20-3 lead, but Hackenberg's 8-yard pass to Chris Godwin with 35 seconds left until halftime made it 20-10. Ohio State fans, needing a Penn State upset to have their Buckeyes qualify for the Big Ten title contest, were encouraged.
But Michigan State came out firing in the third quarter. Cook threw touchdown passes of 29 yards to Aaron Burbridge and 6 yards to Josiah Price to make it 34-10. Hackenberg hit Godwin for 5 yards and a score early in the fourth, but the Spartans put across three touchdowns after that.
"We just didn't execute when we needed to," cornerback Grant Haley said. "You've got to look back, look at the man in the mirror, and really own up to it."