UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Seventh-ranked Penn State football (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) returns to the road this week, traveling to No. 25 Michigan State (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) for a noon matchup at Spartan Stadium Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan.
Both the Nittany Lions and the Spartans enter Saturday's matchup coming off their first conference losses of the season. Penn State has regrouped and moved on from last weekend though, focused and aware of the newest challenge in front of the Nittany Lions.
"Michigan State, obviously tremendous respect for Coach [Mark] Dantonio and their program," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "You look at our history since joining the Big Ten, against Michigan State, they've had a lot of success."
Penn State evened the all-time series at 15-15-1 last year, recording a 45-12 win at home to capture the Big Ten East Division title and reclaim the Land Grant Trophy for the first time since 2010. Last year is in the past though and everyone from Franklin to the staff and Nittany Lions have noted they aren't expecting to matchup against the same Spartan team from 2016.
"Obviously going on the road again is going to be challenging," Franklin said. "They're a hard-nosed Big Ten football program. They play great on defense. They're built on defense, with a defensive head coach. They're a smash-mouth offense. On offense multiple personnel, multiple groupings, trades, shifts, motions, probably very similar to a Michigan, similar to a Stanford-style of offense."
Much like Michigan State, the Nittany Lions are also a much different team than last year, especially when it comes to confidence - even after experiencing some adversity.
"I think the best thing about this team is we're very aware of what we're capable of," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "We're very aware of our potential and how good we can be. I think that's the reason we're not really losing any confidence."
With a fresh mindset, the Nittany Lions have concentrated only on their preparations for Michigan State, debuting at No. 7 in the first release of the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings.
"I think like most things in life, when tough times come, in human nature the initial reaction is to get defensive and to rationalize it and make excuses and we're not going to do that," Franklin said. "We're all going to take a hard look in the mirror, ask the tough questions, challenge ourselves and grow. That's life and that's what we're going to do."
What to Watch For -
1. Franklin called Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke perhaps Penn State's biggest challenge come Saturday, keying in on limiting his mobility as a top priority for the Nittany Lion front seven. Lewerke is coming off a record-setting performance in triple overtime loss at Northwestern. Last weekend, Lewerke set a Spartan single-game record for passing yards (445), total offense (475) and completions (39) against the Wildcats, marking the most for Big Ten quarterback in a single game this year.
"Their quarterback, I think he's in his first year starting for them, is having a really good year and I think that's the biggest difference for them between last year and this year's team, is how well he's playing," Cabinda said.
2. Penn State is plus-14 in the turnover margin, which ranks tied for second in FBS alongside USF. The Nittany Lions have forced 20 turnovers in the first eight games, which is the most turnovers forced in and eight game span since 1993. Key in creating those turnovers has been Penn State's veteran secondary, which is an area Franklin noted has been right where he and the staff would like it to be this year.
"I think we've played really well," Franklin said. "I think Amani [Oruwariye] is leading the conference interceptions, we've got a bunch of guys doing great when it comes to pass breakups. Marcus has always been really physical. I think [Troy] Apke's been more physical this year than probably anticipated, and doing a great job with his fits."
Oruwariye ranks eighth in FBS, averaging a Big Ten-best 0.5 interceptions per game, while Apke is coming off a career high performance at Ohio State with eight tackles, a tackle for loss and one pass breakup.
3. Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki noted earlier this week that his observation of the Michigan State defense this year hasn't only yielded familiarity in terms of the usual tough, physical traits that Franklin mentioned.
"They are playing a little more man coverage than they have in the past three years that we've played them, which is exciting," Gesicki said. "Being a receiver in football, it's something you look forward to. I think their defense is extremely talented, extremely physical, but it's a challenge we're excited for."
What To Watch For - Michigan
1. As an entire unit, Michigan State's defense ranks first in the Big Ten and fourth in FBS in rushing defense (89.8 yards per game). Having limited four conference opponents to less than 100 yards rushing this year, the Spartans have allowed just three rushes of 20-plus yards, which is tied for the third fewest in FBS.
Franklin made specific note of the Spartan linebackers, including starting middle linebacker Joe Bachie. Bachie has started all seven games this year, leading the team in tackles with 71, averaging 8.9 per game, which ranks fourth in the conference.
"I think on defense it's their linebacking unit as a whole," Franklin said. "Those guys have been very productive, they've made a bunch of plays for them."
2. Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis noted the increased experience in the Michigan State secondary when sizing up the Spartans from 2016 to 2017. Having forced just two turnovers in the first three games of the season, Michigan State is now plus-four in turnovers in conference play, having forced 10 turnovers on defense. Safety David Dowell is atop the team standings, owning two of Michigan State's six total interceptions on the year.
3. With one of the youngest teams in the nation, the Spartans have played 13 true freshmen in 2017. Among the group is wide receiver Cody White, who is also coming off of a career performance against Northwestern. White's 165 receiver yards marked the most for a Spartan freshman in a single game in program history, as he recorded a career-high nine catches and two touchdowns to earn Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week honors.
The Final Word -
Franklin postgame last weekend and throughout the week that the Nittany Lions would need to improve in momentum changing situations, especially defensively.
"A lot of people, when they get a sudden change, have the momentum, they're going to try to keep the momentum by taking a shot," Franklin said. "We talk about that, the importance of not allowing them to get the big play in that situation, keep the momentum."
Regardless of momentum though, Penn State will meet Michigan State under a bit of different circumstances this year, as the Nittany Lion-Spartan matchup will be the first time since PSU joined the Big Ten that it's not the regular season finale.