Michigan State Upsets No. 8 Penn State on the Road
Following a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State and a bye week, No. 8 Penn State dropped its second straight game 21-17, this time to the visiting Michigan State Spartans on a game-winning touchdown pass from Brian Lewerke to Felton Davis III with 19 seconds left in front of a crowd of over 106,000 at Beaver Stadium.
Lewerke’s pass capped an eight-play, 76-yard drive that began with one timeout and 1:19 left to play. Lewerke finished 24-52 for 259 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Davis’ final catch was his eighth reception of the day to give him 100 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
It was an impressive comeback win for Michigan State, which was missing two key contributors in starting running back LJ Scott and wide receiver Cody White.
“You have to give Michigan State credit,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “We didn’t do what we needed to do to win the game. We lost too many critical situations.”
Before the loss to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions had not dropped a home game since November 21, 2015. Saturday’s loss, however, marks the second time in a row that Penn State lost at home with a finish that the program has become painfully familiar with over the last two seasons.
“Obviously the first thing you question is did we get over the [Ohio State] loss. I did not see any let down throughout the week, but it was an emotional game,” Franklin said.
Once again, the Nittany Lions failed to create separation with a fourth-quarter lead, and once again it cost them. Penn State led 17-14 heading into the fourth quarter, but Michigan State limited the Nittany Lions to just three second-half points and 159 total yards. Penn State has converted just 6-31 third downs over its last two games as well.
Two Nittany Lions reached career milestones Saturday as Trace McSorley became Penn State’s all-time passing leader in the first quarter, breaking Christian Hackenberg’s previously held record of 8,457 yards.
McSorley finished the game 19-32 for 192 yards and one touchdown. He also added 37 yards on the ground but did not have many opportunities to make big plays in the passing game. He also made a critical mistake late in the game prior to Michigan State’s game-winning drive.
On a third-and-nine play with 1:39 to go, McSorley scrambled short of the first down marker but ran out of bounds to stop the clock, allowing the Spartans to preserve their final timeout.
“I didn’t execute properly,” McSorley said. “I wasn’t accurate enough. I’ve got to be better. When it got down to the point where we needed to make plays, I wasn’t able to do it.”
Miles Sanders also eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for his career. He had a monster first half with 146 yards and eight carries, including a 78-yard carry and a 48-yard touchdown run where he made several defenders miss in the open field.
Michigan State came into Saturday’s matchup ranking No. 1 in the FBS defending the run at just 33.8 yards per game allowed. While the Spartans struggled to stifle Sanders in the first half, the script was completely flipped in the second half as Sanders tallied just 16 yards on nine carries after the break.
“We weren’t able to protect consistently, and when we needed to run when it mattered most at the end of the game, we were able to get them to use their timeouts, but it wasn’t enough to get a first down and put the game away,” Franklin said.
Penn State’s last five losses dating back to 2016 have been by a combined 12 points. The common denominator: it had a fourth-quarter lead in all five of those games.
“We’ve got to be able to finish on offense, defense, special teams – all three phases,” Franklin said. “We didn’t do that today…We’ve got to get all of the little things corrected.”
One can point to the Penn State defense’s failure to get a final stop on Michigan State’s last drive, but the Spartans owned a 12-minute edge in time of possession and fatigue surely set in on the final drive as a result of the offense’s inability to sustain drives.
“I think we got more in the tank,” safety Nick Scott said. “I think there were a lot of positives, but when you look at the tape you’re going to find a number of mistakes that weren’t necessarily detrimental, but things that we could’ve done better. That’s what great teams do.”
Penn State fans will find themselves asking the same questions after another close loss that ended in similar fashion. Poor clock management and conservative play calling from the coaching staff down the stretch will leave a lot of people scratching their heads overnight.
“I believe in investment,” Franklin said. “To be successful in anything that you want to do, you’ve got to invest. I think the natural thing to do is when you invest and don’t have the success that you think you should have then a lot of people start to pull back because that hurts…I’m a big believer in that’s when you invest more.”
Coach Franklin said his team needed to evolve from a great team to an elite team after the one-point loss to Ohio State. Penn State frequently looks to be on the verge of doing so, but after another close loss in which the Nittany Lions looked stagnant on offense late, committed six penalties for 41 yards and turned the ball over twice, it is clear there is still plenty of work to be done before the Nittany Lions ascend into that category.
“We’ve just got to come together,” McSorley said. “Right now is a time when we’re going to find out about the kind of team we have. When you go through back to back losses at home, it’s tough but we have a lot of Big Ten games left to play, so we just have to come together.”
Will Desautelle is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism and political science. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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