How Mel Tucker can make Michigan State football history vs. Penn State

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Looking back at Michigan State’s 56-7 loss at Ohio State, and looking ahead to the No. 13 Spartans’ regular-season finale against Penn State.

Next up

Matchup: No. 13 Michigan State (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) at Penn State (7-4, 4-4).

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m, Saturday; Spartan Stadium, East Lansing.

TV/radio: ABC, WJR-AM (760).

Line: Spartans by a half-point.

[ Why does Michigan State want to extend Mel Tucker? To close the talent gap with Ohio State ]

Know the foe

Rutgers defensive lineman Aaron Lewis (71) tries to tackle Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Rutgers defensive lineman Aaron Lewis (71) tries to tackle Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Coach James Franklin’s team had lost four of five before shutting out Rutgers on Saturday, 28-0, in the Nittany Lions’ home finale. It was the second shutout of the season for Penn State, which ranks fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense (15.5 points), 28th in total defense (335.9 yards), third in red-zone defense (62.2%) and seventh in opponent passing efficiency (108.8). Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, a former teammate of MSU backup QB Anthony Russo at Temple, is fifth in the nation with 16 tackles for loss per game and tied for 13th with 9.5 sacks. Quarterback Sean Clifford was among 35 players who were experiencing flu-like symptoms before Saturday’s game and left in the first quarter, with freshman Christian Veilleux making his debut with three touchdowns and 235 yards on 15-for-24 passing. Clifford has battled injuries all season but has thrown for 2,599 yards, completing 61.9% of his passes for 17 touchdowns with six interceptions. PSU’s big-play receiver Jahan Dotson already has 1,045 yards this season with 10 touchdowns among his team-leading 83 catches; he's also a dangerous returner. PSU ranks 84th in total offense, but just 116th in rushing offense at 110.5 yards per game split mainly among Keyvone Lee, Noah Cain and Clifford.

Three things we learned

Nov 20, 2021; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Garrett Wilson (5) leaps over Michigan State Spartans safety Angelo Grose (15) in the first half  at Ohio Stadium.
Nov 20, 2021; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Garrett Wilson (5) leaps over Michigan State Spartans safety Angelo Grose (15) in the first half at Ohio Stadium.

Talent gap: Mel Tucker admitted as much after the humiliating defeat — there is a massive chasm between the Buckeyes and the Spartans in both talent and depth, even after MSU’s second-year coach mined the transfer portal and brought in more than 40 new players. OSU called off the dogs after halftime, removing starting quarterback C.J. Stroud and other starters after scoring touchdowns on its first seven drives for a 49-0 halftime lead. OSU posted 655 yards and 206 on the ground, the most allowed in both categories this season by MSU, and the Spartans gained just 224, their fewest total yards, to go with their lowest scoring output. The Buckeyes had the ball for nearly 38 minutes.

More: Michigan State football injuries mounting: Kenneth Walker III hobbled after Ohio State loss

Coverage collapse: Already ranked last in passing yards allowed, MSU hit rock bottom against Stroud. The redshirt freshman was 32-for-35 passing for 432 yards and six touchdowns, heading to the bench after OSU’s first drive of the second half. Three of his receivers eclipsed 100 yards and caught five touchdowns as the Spartans’ cornerbacks and safeties were beat deep repeatedly, and the middle of the defense was picked apart; Stroud, at one point, completed 17 straight passes.

Dominated in trenches: MSU’s offensive and defensive lines were overwhelmed by the bigger, more physical Buckeyes all afternoon. Kenneth Walker III, hobbled by an ankle injury, and the rest of the running backs found little traction in the run game while Payton Thorne had five of his 11 broken-up passes knocked down by OSU defensive linemen and linebackers. On the other side, the Buckeyes averaged 4.8 yards per carry as MSU's defensive ends were pushed sideways and the tackles were blown off the ball in the middle. Starting running back TreVeyon Henderson ran only nine times but picked up 63 yards and a touchdown, with third-string veteran Master Teague III carrying 21 times for 95 yards after the game was well in hand.

Chris Solari's three things to watch

Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Burke knocks the ball away from Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Jayden Reed, forcing an incompletion in the first quarter at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Nov. 20, 2021.
Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Burke knocks the ball away from Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Jayden Reed, forcing an incompletion in the first quarter at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Nov. 20, 2021.

Limping to finish: Injuries again will be a major problem going into the final week of the season. Along with Walker’s nagging left ankle injury, receiver Jayden Reed (right foot) and safety Xavier Henderson (shoulder) left the game and did not play in the second half. Linebacker Quavaris Crouch did not start, played mostly in the first half with a brace on his right knee and did not return after halftime. MSU also continued to play without receiver Jalen Nailor (right hand), left tackle Jarrett Horst (undisclosed), cornerback Chuck Brantley (shoulder) and defensive tackle Simeon Barrow (undisclosed). And kicker Matt Coghlin, also dealing with an undisclosed injury, missed his only field-goal attempt.

Quest for 10: Though the humbling loss at Ohio State knocked MSU out of contention for the Big Ten East crown and a berth in the College Football Playoff, the Spartans still have a shot at a seemingly improbable 10 wins, despite Vegas oddsmakers setting their over/under win total at 4.5 before the season. Tucker is looking to become the fourth coach in MSU history to win 10 games in a season, and the fastest to do so. A win Saturday would put the second-season coach well ahead of Mark Dantonio’s four seasons. Dantonio won at least 10 games in six seasons, and Duffy Daugherty and Nick Saban each did it once. And the Spartans also are looking to close out the season unbeaten at Spartan Stadium.

More: Michigan State football grades: Defense, coaching failed in blowout loss at Ohio State

Shawn Windsor: Mel Tucker can still earn big bucks from Michigan State football if he matches OSU's 'D'

Lots of reasons: The Spartans have plenty at stake in the final game beyond pride. They will celebrate senior day against the Nittany Lions, including honoring some sixth-year players who benefitted from the pandemic-induced extra year of eligibility. And with the CFP out of the equation, and almost certaingly the Rose Bowl as well, MSU needs to finish strong to bolster its résumé going into bowl selection time.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Mel Tucker can make Michigan State football history vs. PSU