Michigan State did a good job of holding down Saquon Barkley in last year's meeting against Penn State. The question going into the game between the two teams on Saturday is, can the Spartans do it again?
"He's a great running back," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "We played other great running backs. We've played him before. This is our third year playing against him, so I think we understand who he is and what he represents, how difficult it is to defend him.
"He's a great player. You want to win a football game, you have to shut down great players."
Barkley rushed for only 14 yards in 12 carries against the Spartans in last year's 45-12 win by the Nittany Lions that clinched the Big Ten East championship for them. Barkley left that game late in the third quarter with what was believed to be an injury.
Barkley has been a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy all season, although he has struggled running the football the last two weeks. But he has done a great job of breaking big runs — a 69-yard run and a 42-yard reception for touchdowns against Michigan, a 97-yard kickoff return TD and a 36-yard dash to the end zone against Ohio State.
"Obviously he's their leading rusher and leading receiver," Dantonio said. "He's a featured guy. He has two touchdowns on kickoff returns, outstanding player in all respects, one of our nation's finest … big electrifying guy, laterally very quick, cutback runner, spin runner, effective player, great player."
The Spartans enter Saturday's game as the No. 1 team in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 89.8 yards per game.
Dantonio also praised the Nittany Lions' Trace McSorley, whom he called "the epitome of an RPO type quarterback," referring to the run-pass option.
"I think McSorley does an outstanding job of extending the plays in the pocket, then launching the football," the coach said. "We have to be able to get pressure, get him on the ground, things of that nature. If it's a normal quarterback passing situation where he's not extending a play, the ball comes out a lot quicker. He extends the play and launches it deep sometimes."
Like Penn State, Michigan State is coming off its first Big Ten loss of the season, a 39-31 triple-overtime defeat at Northwestern. Quarterback Brian Lewerke threw four touchdown passes and set a program record with 445 yards through the air, but the Spartans struggled in the running game and lost two fumbles.