Know Thy Enemy: Penn State RB Miles Sanders 'better fit schematically' than Saquon
Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes from the eyes of The State News to the eyes of the student newspaper of Michigan State football's opponent.
After falling 29-19 to Northwestern (2-3, 2-1 in Big Ten) last Saturday, Michigan State (3-2, 1-1) looks to get back on the right track against No. 8 Penn State (4-1, 1-1) 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Editor's note: This article was slightly edited for clarification purposes.
Q: First off, how would you assess Penn State's season so far?
King: It's kind of difficult to assess through the first five games because they really haven't played anybody good outside of Ohio State — and that game was a 1-point loss at home in a white-out environment. So I think we'll get a better idea of what this Penn State team is going to be going forward, kind of with just how it responds to that Ohio State loss, and if it returns to its identity of being a team that wants to run the ball first. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders, both who are elite runners at their respective positions.
Q: Obviously Saquon Barkley goes to the NFL, so how has Miles Sanders come into his own? Is he any different than Saquon? Different strengths and weaknesses?
King: I personally think Sanders is a better fit schematically for this Penn State offense than Saquon was. I think Saquon is a better NFL, pro-style running back, and I think that's kind of shown this year with what Sanders has done (87 rushes for 538 yards and six touchdowns). I mean, he rushed for exactly 200 yards on the road against Illinois (3-2, 2-1) and three touchdowns. He was just all over the place. And Ohio State, its game plan coming in was taking him away, and it did just that. But, every other defense Penn State has played has not been able to take him away. Sanders has really been one of the better running backs in the Big Ten, if not the country. So, I think he's done a good job stepping into that role, and he's a weapon for this Penn State offense it can trust, which you can tell, on a fourth-and-5 with the game on the line, they hand the ball to him and not anybody else. So they trust him and for good reason.
Schlarp: Yeah, if I can just add on to that. Sanders is a much more functional running back then Saquon Barkley was. Like Saquon will give you a 60-yard carry, but he's also going to give you a lot of carries that go nowhere for a loss. Miles Sanders, it seems like every carry is like 5 or 6 yards and he almost never loses anything.
King: Yeah, he puts his head down, and he runs really hard. Everybody talks about Saquon's thighs, but Miles Sanders has got some thick legs too. And it takes a couple guys to bring him down on occasion, so he's definitely a powerful runner, and he's got some speed too.
Q: Can you talk about the dual-threat of Trace McSorley and how he's improved from last year to this year? What about McSorley kind of makes him different above everybody else?
King: I mean I think one thing that makes Trace McSorley better than almost every other quarterback in the country, is his ability to find what the defense is giving him and exploit it. Whether it's throwing the deep ball like he has in years past, whether it's short gains, whether it's handing the ball to his running back if the defense is keying in on him, he's going to find what the defense is giving him, and he's going to exploit it. Case in point against Ohio State; they were really taking away the deep ball, and they were shutting down Penn State's receivers, and like I mentioned earlier, they were taking away Sanders at the point of attack. And you saw McSorley — he had a bunch of scrambles. He carried the ball 25 times for 175 yards, so I mean it was an incredible day (for him) physically, but a lot of those weren't designed runs. A lot of those were him improvising and just seeing nothing open downfield, and just taking off. He's just a really, really good rusher as a quarterback, and probably one of the best I've seen here at Penn State.
Q: So, talk to me about this Penn State defense as a whole, especially the pass defense and this red-zone defense.
King: Yeah, I think they're going to be boosted this week by getting back one of their key defensive ends in Shane Simmons, who's missed the first five games of the season. He really came into his own at the end of last season — he played pretty well in the Fiesta Bowl against Washington. But, Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller are a pretty good starting defensive end duo. Kevin Givens is one of the more underrated defensive tackles in the nation. But, I think they've struggled to really wrap up and get sacks, but they've gotten in the backfield and key tackles for loss. They really don't have the sack numbers that really jump out at you, but I think against Ohio State they were keying in on taking away (quarterback Dwayne) Haskins and making him uncomfortable, sending five, six, seven guys in the box. I think that's something you're going to see again, especially with Michigan State's struggling offensive line and Lewerke's ability to kind of scramble and create on the fly.
Q: Who are a couple of players Michigan State fans should look out for, that isn't a Trace McSorley or Miles Sanders?
King: I think the first one that stands out has got to be wide receiver KJ Hamler on the offensive side of the ball. I mean, he's one of the more electric Penn State receivers I've seen, since probably Allen Robinson was here in the early part of this decade. But Hamler is electric. He's still refining his route-running abilities, but overall I think KJ Hamler is the most reliable weapon this Penn State offense has outside of McSorley and Sanders.
And I guess going over to the defensive side of the ball; I think Cam Brown has been their most consistent defender — easily their best linebacker. He's playing almost a 100 percent of the snaps, and he's done a great job at that SAM linebacker spot, and like I said he's been really consistent. You don't notice him out there, which is a good thing. He's doing everything he needs to do.
Q: Score, who wins and why?
King: I've been having trouble getting an exact score, but I do think Penn State is going to win by double-digit points, I think the spread (Penn State —14) is kind of accurate. For our paper, I picked 38-21 Penn State. Tom would did you pick?
Schlarp: Penn State 35-20, I believe.
King: Yeah, so we both think Penn State is going to win by double-digit points. I think Penn State's offense is too good. And I think this team is dialed in and ready to bounce back from that 1-point loss against Ohio State.