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Penn State hopes to get its passing game together against Michigan State

The Nittany Lions have been inconsistent through the air in their first five games. The Spartans have a strong rush defense but are one of the worst teams in the nation against the pass.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley drops back to throw a pass against Ohio State.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley drops back to throw a pass against Ohio State.Read moreTim Tai / Staff Photographer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State's passing game has had its share of highlights this season. The Nittany Lions have connected on the two longest plays from scrimmage in program history, and the one-handed catch made by Juwan Johnson against Ohio State will be on a continuous loop well into the future.

The consistency in the attack, however, is another story. The most obvious problem has been dropped passes — 17 in the first five games, worst in the Big Ten, according to Pro Football Focus. That is part of the reason why Trace McSorley is completing just 52.9 percent of his passes, as compared to a 65.6 percent mark through the Lions' first five games last season.

The eighth-ranked Lions (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) hope to turn that all around on Saturday against Michigan State (3-2, 1-1) in their homecoming game. They had a bye last week to try to smooth out the rough patches, and the Spartans' pass defense is one of the worst in the nation as far as yardage yielded, 305.2 per game.

McSorley said the passing game is "obviously [not] where we want it to be."

"We had issues all across the board, from quarterback percentage, making more accurate throws and giving the guys better chances to make some of these contested catches," the quarterback said Wednesday in a conference call. "I think that's part of it, not having to make a perfect throw but putting it in a spot where our guys can adjust and go get it away from the defense.

"Some of it is route depth and focusing in on those kinds of little details and winning against man coverage. Then it's just finishing plays, whether it's catching the ball and getting north-south and making someone miss, or making the catch, whatever it might be. If we take care of those, one thing at a time by each position and by each person, I think our passing game can continue to be sharper."

The Spartans own the nation's No. 1 rush defense, allowing just 33.8 yards on the ground per game. With virtually no chance to run, opponents have turned to the pass, throwing an average of 44 against them with a completion rate of 64.5 percent, worst in the Big Ten.

Coach Mark Dantonio said injuries have been an issue, with two cornerbacks out and another questionable for Saturday. He said some opponents have hit deep balls against his team and "that's where deep-ball judgment comes into play. It's a game of inches."

McSorley and the Spartans' Brian Lewerke combined last year at East Lansing for 103 passes and 781 yards in a game won 27-24 by Michigan State on a field goal with no time remaining. With the Spartans' best rusher, LJ Scott, a game-time decision because of an ankle injury, the visitors could depend on the pass again.

As for the Nittany Lions, head coach James Franklin wants to see balance. The team's rushing game ranks 11th in the nation.

"I think the mistake that you make when you play a team like that is that you abort the run and just go all pass, and now their d-line is able to tee off on you," he said. "We've got to be patient with it. I know our o-line, tight ends, running backs and coaches are looking at it as a challenge."

Michigan State at Penn State

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. at Beaver Stadium

TV/radio: Big Ten Network, WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440)

Records: Penn State, 4-1, 1-1 Big Ten, ranked No. 8 by the AP; Michigan State, 3-2, 1-1.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (fifth season, 40-18); Michigan State, Mark Dantonio (12th season, 103-47).

History: Michigan State holds a 16-15-1 advantage in the series. The Spartans regained possession of the Land Grant Trophy last season, with Matt Coghlin kicking a 34-yard field goal as time expired for a 27-24 win in a game that was delayed by lightning for almost 3 1/2 hours.

Three things to watch

A possible Ohio State hangover

For the second straight year, the Nittany Lions are facing Michigan State coming off a heartbreaking one-point loss to Ohio State. The difference this year is that there was a bye week between the games, and Franklin said his team has shown resiliency in bouncing back. The Lions have been focused in practice, with Franklin calling Tuesday's session "the best practice in the four years since we've been" at Penn State. Quarterback Trace McSorley said the team has had "good conversations" since Ohio State about where it needs to improve. Now the improvements must be taken to the field.

Penn State's offense must be balanced

The dual between Michigan State's best-in-the-nation rush defense and McSorley and Miles Sanders running the football for the Nittany Lions will be the most compelling one. The Lions have rushed more than passed in every game this year, and carry a streak of eight consecutive 200-yard performances into Saturday. The front seven of the Spartans is as good as there is in the Big Ten, which will provide another test for the Penn State offensive line, which did a decent job in its toughest matchup of the season against the Buckeyes. If the visitors stop the rush, there is always the pass, but James Franklin wants balance and he'll have his team keep pounding.

The Spartans need a running attack

Michigan State has a fine quarterback in 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior Brian Lewerke, who passed for 400 yards last year against the Nittany Lions. But he can't do it alone. The Spartans' rushing attack is next-to-last in the Big Ten, gaining just 123 yards per game. Senior LJ Scott, the team's top rusher in each of the past three seasons, has missed the last three games with an ankle injury and will be a game-time decision Saturday. Connor Heyward's 147 yards currently leads the team. Wide receiver Felton Davis, who rushed for a 48-yard touchdown last week, could be more of a weapon in the run game this week.