PENN STATE will assume the role of giant-killer for its regular-season finale Saturday at Michigan State, though it's not a role everyone embraces.
"Obviously, it's a very highly ranked team, and they're a great team," offensive tackle Andrew Nelson said Tuesday of the sixth-ranked Spartans. "They just beat Ohio State (17-14, on the road), and that's huge. But the way we're approaching this game, it's the same as any other game."
Uh, really? MSU is 10-1, and on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN) will be playing for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. The Lions, 7-4 and losers of two straight, have little to play for by comparison, beyond sweetening their resumé for some second-tier bowl.
Or so it would seem.
"Trust me, we're playing for a lot," coach James Franklin said. "We played for a lot on Saturday (in a 28-16 home loss to Michigan). A lot of people live and die Penn State football, and it's very, very important to them, so, trust me, my staff and our players feel like we're playing for a lot on Saturday and feel like that every single Saturday."
And as sophomore linebacker Troy Reeder said, "I think there's always something left to prove, unless you're the national champion."
Franklin mentioned winning an eighth game, something the Lions have not done since 2012. Reeder, a Wilmington native, mentioned sending the seniors out on a high note and building momentum for next season.
"A lot of people out there question how high of a level are we capable of playing at," he said, "and I think we've done a good job of hanging in some tight games. But you know, for us, I think it's time that we . . . knock off a Power 5 team."
The Spartans, playing last week without injured quarterback Connor Cook (shoulder), ended a 23-game winning streak by the No. 3 Buckeyes on a last-second field goal by Michael Geiger. Backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry shared time at QB in Cook's absence, and the MSU defense limited the explosive Buckeyes to a paltry 132 yards.
"Looking at Michigan State's defense," Nelson said, "they're as good as any."
It is unclear whether Cook will be available this week, as coach Mark Dantonio does not discuss injuries. Franklin is similarly tight-lipped about such matters, though he did say Tuesday that his team is "banged up . . . probably more so this week than really in the year and a half we've been here."
He did not get into specifics, though senior defensive end Carl Nassib (Malvern Prep) was limited to three plays against Michigan with what is thought to be a shoulder injury. Nassib, who leads the nation in sacks with a school-record 15.5 and tackles for loss with 19.5, was named a finalist Tuesday for both the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and the Burlsworth Trophy, presented to the best player in the nation who began his career as a walk-on.
Nassib previously was named a finalist for the Nagurski Award (another prize given to the nation's top defensive player) and the Lombardi Award (presented to the top lineman, offense or defense).
The Lions' problems go well beyond injuries. They are next-to-last among the nation's 127 FBS teams in third-down conversion rate (27.6 percent), and their offensive line has allowed a Big Ten-worst 37 sacks, seven off the school-record total it surrendered a year ago and 121st in the country.
And while the Lions have generally been good in the red zone this season, that was not the case against Michigan. On three occasions, they had a first down at the 9 or closer, but they netted 4 yards on nine subsequent snaps and were forced to settle for a field goal each time.
"We need to be much more physical on the o-line and at tight end," Franklin said. "There were times where we did not win those matchups, too many times that we were getting knocked back in the backfield and made it difficult to consistently run the ball for positive yardage. Got to score touchdowns and not kick field goals in the red zone."
That would not appear to bode well this weekend. Not against a Michigan State team that Franklin said was arguably the best in the conference, and a team that has established "a culture of winning."
The Lions, in Franklin's second season, are trying to establish the same thing. He thinks the rebuild is "about on schedule" in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal and its resulting subsequent NCAA sanctions (since reduced), the firing and death of coach Joe Paterno and near-constant coaching churn since.
"In a lot of ways, I think we're making tremendous progress," Franklin said. "It doesn't show up always the way everybody wants it, in the win-loss column or on the scoreboard, but that's coming. I feel very, very confident in that."
He can only hope his team, reluctant as it might be to regard itself as a giant-killer, takes another step forward Saturday.