Tuesday, November 30, 2021

FINAL: Spartans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Penn State 39, MSU 24

December 12, 2020
<p>Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) is tackled during the game against Penn State Oct. 26, 2019, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans fell to the Nittany Lions, 28-7.</p>

Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) is tackled during the game against Penn State Oct. 26, 2019, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans fell to the Nittany Lions, 28-7.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Michigan State looked like it had this one.

Until it didn't.

In Payton Thorne's first career start, with Gruff Sparty adorning their helmets, with a 21-10 lead at halftime and with a 21-point second-quarter outburst from an offense that was bereft of life, the Spartans blew it.

Penn State didn't.

And the Nittany Lions won the battle Land Grant Trophy 39-24 as Jahan Dotson buckled his knees and scooted 81 yards for a punt-return touchdown to seal the game with 11:24 left in the final quarter.

"We have to do it for four quarters," Head Coach Mel Tucker said after the loss. "It was crystal clear today, what we've been talking about and what we're striving for. In the first half, we played complementary football. We did on offense, defense and special teams. Guys were playing hard, and we had execution and we were able to have success. In the second half, we did not do that."

MSU falls to 2-5 with the loss and Penn State won their third game in a row to climb to 3-5 after starting the season with five straight losses.

MSU's offense flickers then the flame goes out

Thorne and the MSU offense found the endzone in the second quarter after getting down 3-0 at the end of the first.

Wide receiver Jalen Nailor beat a safety on a deep post route and Thorne thrust the ball downfield for 45 yards. MSU took a 7-3 lead.

Then Thorne connected on 10-of-10 passes in the second quarter with seven completions of 10+ yards and two more touchdowns, one more to Nailor and another to 6-foot-7 giant Tre'Von Morgan, his first of his career, with 6:24 left in the second.

At the half, on the legs of a second-quarter that was MSU's best 15-minute stretch of offense all season, MSU was averaging 8.1 yards per play and Thorne had three touchdowns and more than 200 yards after he started the game with a penalty, sack and interception all on the very first drive.

"He wasn't rattled, and he was into the game and he was aware, the entire game," Tucker said. "He had a good look in his eye and he was into the game."

Penn State's defense was lost. MSU's offense found its way.

Then it all fell apart.

In the second half, MSU had 147 total yards of offense after having more than 200 in the first half. Thorne, overall, was a bright spot for a team that has struggled with week-to-week consistency under center all season. The redshirt-freshman finished with 325 passing yards, three touchdowns and 22 completions on 39 attempts.

Penn State's second-half adjustments save season freefall

The Nittany Lions' historically bad start has been salvaged by three straight wins over Michigan, Rutgers and now MSU.

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Penn State's defense was battered and bruised for much of the first half but in the second, the Nittany Lions front seven chased Thorne around the line of scrimmage and their quarterback duo of Will Levis and Sean Clifford found stability.

Levis and Clifford both rushed for touchdowns. Clifford scampered for the Nittany Lions' first touchdown of the day, and Levis scored his from one yard out to give Penn State a 25-24 lead that they never relinquished.

Dotson returned a punt to seal the game. MSU's offense was shut down in the second half by a defense that is missing a likely top-10 draft pick in linebacker Micah Parsons.

In a year where Penn State has lost to teams that it hadn't in years, they kept their hopes for any semblance of a postseason bowl game alive as the usual baseline for a bowl game of winning six games was waived early this fall by the NCAA.

What's next for Michigan State

MSU will see who they play for their ninth game during Big Ten Champions Week. The ninth week of the season will showcase teams from each division facing each other.

"I really haven't been told anything," Tucker said. "We'll find out when we find out. ... We'll be on the phone today, and I'll be asking a lot of questions. We'll be making some calls, and we might not be able to narrow it down. We might not know tonight, but we might be able to narrow it down to a couple two or three teams."

MSU finishes the regular season section of their schedule with two wins, but both came against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top-15.

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