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Spartans have had Lions’ number

Keys to the game

Five things to look for as No. 6 Penn State looks to solve the mystery of a Michigan State team that surprisingly has had the Nittany Lions’ number the past two years.

No. 1: Enough is enough

A Penn State fan I ran into at the airport in Detroit nailed it when she said this Friday afternoon about Michigan State:

“I’m tired of them winning when they’re not the better team.”

Penn State was better than Michigan State last year. But inexplicably lost at home, 21-17.

Penn State was better than Michigan State two years ago. But it lost a bizarre contest on the road, 27-24, on a field goal as time expired in a game that included a 3¢-hour lightning delay.

The Spartans have won five of the past six meetings, and they clearly were the better team in the first three of those (2010, 2014, 2015). PSU’s lone win over Michigan State this decade was a 45-12 thrashing during the 2016 Big Ten title season.

For some reason, Sparty always matches up well against Penn State. It’s tough to pinpoint the exact reasons why, but Mark Dantonio just seems to know how to game plan for and coach against the Lions.

The comparison I’ve long made is that, surprisingly, Penn State basketball typically matches up well against Michigan State. The Spartans, under Tom Izzo, always have an excellent team, while PSU often does not, yet for some reason, the Lions often give MSU fits in hoops.

Dantonio has done an excellent job over the years at Michigan State, coaching up primarily three-star recruits and having them go toe to toe and beating teams loaded with four-and five-star guys. It’s the whole “little brother” notion that MSU thrives on, from the infamous quote by former Michigan running back Mike Hart.

The Spartans play with a chip on their shoulder. They play tough defense. They usually have a good quarterback and solid running game. Their special teams are strong. Dantonio is good under pressure.

All of these things can help a team make up for a talent differential. Penn State may have more talent than Michigan State, but as we’ve seen the past two years, the Spartans pride themselves on being able to overcome that and pull off upsets.

No. 2: Pressure QB

Brian Lewerke torched Penn State for 400 yards passing in the loss at East Lansing two years ago. Lewerke is a decent college quarterback, but 400 yards? That should never happen. He had all day to throw the ball in that game as PSU seldom got much pressure.

Last week, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson had a solid game with 276 yards passing. Iowa’s Nate Stanley had 286 yards two weeks ago.

The Lions have an excellent defensive front, but the secondary has question marks and has played a lot of soft coverage.

The front seven needs to get pressure on Lewerke today, or else the Spartans could keep their offense on the field for a good bit of the game and wear down PSU’s defense, as Michigan did in the second half.

No. 3: Offensive consistency

The big topic this week has been how PSU needs to find a way to sustain drives and keep the offense on the field, as opposed to relying so much on big plays that lead to quick points.

The big plays are great, don’t get me wrong. But if they’re not there, the Lions can’t be going three-and-out and putting their defense right back out on the field.

Maybe, just maybe this will be the game we see a whole lot of Noah Cain on a bunch of series. He doesn’t have to carry the ball 25 times and get worn out against a tough defense. If he runs well, the more he’s on the field, the more he can serve as a decoy to help out the entire offense.

No. 4: Wear and tear

The Lions are coming off tough, physical night games against Iowa and Michigan, now have to go on the road and play another tough, physical team.

Oh, and the Spartans are coming off a bye week. And they’re a desperate team, having lost their last two games to Ohio State and Wisconsin.

There’s a reason so many people are calling this a potential trap game for Penn State.

Michigan State has not looked good offensively for a good bit of the season. And all things considered, Penn State is the better team.

But you add up all the intangible things that favor Sparty, and it’s easy to see why they could pull off another upset.

No. 5: Players to watch

PSU: QB Sean Clifford. He looked nervous early at Iowa before settling in. This is another hostile environment where he needs to be sharp and can’t afford shaky stretches.

Michigan State: Let’s put the entire defense on blast. The Spartans have given up 103 points in their past three games and have been bitten by the big play time and again. That last part especially favors Penn State. We’ll see if Dantonio & Co. have figured things out defensively during their bye week.

Prediction: PSU, 19-16.

Follow @CoryGiger on Twitter for live updates and analysis throughout today’s game.

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