EAST LANSING, Mich. – In his fourth season of coaching a Big Ten team, James Franklin knows that his coaching colleagues have this commitment, or maybe even obsession, about stopping their opponent's running attack.
"I think the people in this conference … they've made up their mind you're not running the ball on them," the Penn State head coach said this week. "To be honest with you, most defensive coordinators I've been around are like that. They're always going to try to get an extra man in the box to outnumber you."
Over the last two weeks, opponents have outnumbered Saquon Barkley and made him look nothing like the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. After an incredible 102-yard first quarter against Michigan two weeks ago, the Nittany Lions' 230-pound junior was bottled up the rest of the way. He managed just a season-low 44 yards on the ground against Ohio State in 21 carries, one of them going for a 36-yard touchdown.
On Saturday at Spartan Stadium, it's Michigan State's turn to try to contain Barkley. The Nittany Lions (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten), who came in at No. 7 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, will be facing the Big Ten's best rush defense for the second time in three weeks. The Spartans (6-2, 4-1), who allow just fewer than 90 yards per game on the ground, have replaced Michigan in that spot.
So it is up to Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to come up with ways to loosen things up for Barkley, keep defenders from greeting him as soon as he takes the handoff, or find him in space as a receiver.
Franklin said it's important to be patient with the running game.
"When the opportunities come with Saquon, not only with his ability, we're also able to put him in good situations because when he is carrying the ball, it's usually because the numbers are good," Franklin said. "The combination of Saquon's ability, the offensive line straining and fighting like crazy, Joe putting us in the right call, that's why we've been so explosive."
The offensive line had its issues last week with Ohio State's front seven, and the Penn State attack gained only 283 total yards in the 39-38 loss. The Lions were affected at two positions when left tackle Ryan Bates (Archbishop Wood), perhaps the team's best lineman, went out with an undisclosed injury. Redshirt freshman Will Fries moved from right tackle to the left side and fourth-year junior Chasz Wright took Fries' place.
Trace McSorley, who was named a finalist this week for the Johnny Unitas Award given to the nation's top junior or senior quarterback, said one objective this week in the matchup for the Land Grant Trophy is valuing each play more, something he observed in film study of Ohio State.
"The margin of error is so small in games of that magnitude and versus those caliber teams," he said "Every play that's out there, you have to take advantage of it. There were a couple of plays where we misread a guy downfield or an easy pass.
"You never know what plays are going to be the difference, so you've just got to treat every play like it's gold. You've got to make every single play that you can."
Penn State at Michigan State
Saturday, noon, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
TV: Fox29. Radio: WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Records: Penn State, 7-1 overall, 4-1 Big Ten, ranked No. 7 in the AP poll and by the College Football Playoff selection committee. Michigan State, 6-2, 4-1, ranked No. 24 in both.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (32-16 in 4th season at Penn State, 56-31 overall). Michigan State, Mark Dantonio (96-44 in 11th season at Michigan State, 114-61 overall).
History: The series is deadlocked, 15-15-1. Penn State leads, 14-7, since joining the Big Ten in 1993.
Last meeting: Penn State, 45-12, Nov. 26, 2016 at Beaver Stadium.
Where's Saquon? Ohio State followed Saquon Barkley all over the place last week, especially into the Penn State backfield. Because Michigan State leads the Big Ten in rushing defense, Nittany Lions offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead needs to find Barkley some space in which to maneuver, perhaps in the passing game, where Barkley was a non-factor last week. Don't expect Barkley to touch the ball on kickoff returns; the Spartans are last in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, and the Lions probably won't risk Barkley.
Injuries on the lines: Two of the Nittany Lions' better linemen on either side of the ball were knocked out of the Ohio State game and may not play Saturday. As is his policy, James Franklin has not commented on the injuries suffered by offensive tackle Ryan Bates (Archbishop Wood) and defensive end Ryan Buchholz (Great Valley), nor has he said anything about their availability for Michigan State. Redshirt freshman Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter) played the most snaps of his career in place of Buchholz.
Michigan State's dormant running game: The Spartans were terrible rushing the football last week in their triple-overtime loss at Northwestern, and will need to get something going in that phase of their game to keep the ball away from Penn State's potent offense. Junior LJ Scott leads the team with 511 rushing yards but managed just 16 yards in eight carries last week. Sophomore Brian Lewerke threw for four touchdowns and set program records with 445 passing yards and 39 completions, so that has to be a concern for the Lions.
Loving those turnovers: Penn State remains near the top of the FBS standings in turnover margin, ranking second this week with a plus-14 fueled by 20 takeaways (11 fumbles, nine interceptions). The Spartans have lost 10 fumbles, two coming last week. The Lions haven't had an interception in the last two weeks.
Third-down improvement: The Nittany Lions struggled in the first five games of the season on third down, converting at a poor 34.8 percent clip. However, in their last three games, they have converted exactly half of their third downs, 19 of 38, to get their season percentage over 40 percent and climb to fifth in the Big Ten. They'll have to be sharp again this week against a Michigan State defense that allows opponents to convert at a 30.5 percent rate.