Nov. 26—Truth is, the problems for Michigan State didn't start in that tunnel in Ann Arbor.
What happened there, though, sure didn't make anything after that any easier.
A championship contender last season, and a team considered a potential powerhouse at the start of this season, Michigan State's season-to-forget winds down Saturday in Happy Valley. But they'd sure like to ruin Penn State's hopes of a 10-win season on the way out.
The Spartans visit the
No. 11 Nittany Lions at 4 p.m. at Beaver Stadium, and while a win will give them a .500 record and bowl eligibility, the focus in the annual clash for the coveted Land Grant Trophy for coach Mel Tucker's team is getting to the finish line as whole as possible.
A stunning loss at Washington on Sept. 17 started a four-game losing streak for Sparty. Then on Oct. 29, after being blasted, 29-7, by rival Michigan at Michigan Stadium, a violent attack on two Wolverines players led to the indefinite suspension of eight Spartans, most of whom were defensive players.
None have returned, and Tucker offered no hint that this would be the week any would take the field.
Their absence has affected Michigan State the rest of the way.
"The only day that we have contact when we hit with pads on is gameday," Tucker said this week. "It's been like that for the last three weeks because we don't have enough guys to practice. We don't have enough healthy bodies. We're just trying to get guys to the game so that we have enough guys to be able to play in the game."
Michigan State did upset Big Ten West-leading Illinois the following week, but the defense allowed 460 yards against the inept Rutgers offense Nov. 12, and allowed 39 points in an overtime loss to Indiana last week, losing courtesy of a last second missed field goal and a defense that couldn't slow a statistically mediocre Indiana rushing attack.
Still, Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne has thrown for nearly 600 yards in two career starts against Penn State, and he's leading an offense that still has a penchant for making big plays. Their 13.8 percent explosive play rate is second in the conference.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said his team will need to start faster against the Spartans if it wants to take the next step after a series of impressive, lopsided wins. With a New Year's Six bowl berth still hanging in the balance for the Nittany Lions if they can finish 10-2, there is plenty of focus even after the crushing loss to Ohio State that closed out October.
Senior quarterback Sean Clifford called the Nittany Lions a team on a mission to build, and team leaders see Michigan State as the last brick in the wall toward a successful regular season.
"We said through hell or high water we're going to see this thing through and we're going to make sure that we put Penn State in the best position possible and make them proud," he added. "It's about finishing the year strong one game at a time. I'm never going to take anything lightly because I know I don't have much time here left."
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