Have you ever seen a fistfight in a blizzard?
On Saturday, Mother Nature began to dump her first serious snowfall on East Lansing just in time for the kickoff for Michigan State’s season finale against Penn State. The Spartans and Nittany Lions traded blows in the winter wonderland until the very end, when the Spartans pulled away.
MSU was able to edge out the Nittany Lions 30-27 in the end, thanks to a series of big plays from the defense and special teams in the fourth quarter.
The first came from redshirt senior linebacker Noah Harvey with MSU backed up against its own goal line. On fourth and one, Harvey burst through the line to tackle the running back behind the line of scrimmage and return the ball to MSU’s offense.
The next big play from the defense came from the other starting linebacker, redshirt freshman Cal Haladay on Penn State’s next possession. Facing third and one at midfield, Penn State turned to a dive up the middle again.
MSU’s front seven were in the backfield immediately, led by redshirt junior defensive tackle Jacob Slade and Haladay. Haladay’s big hit jarred the ball loose for sixth-year senior defensive end Drew Beesley to fall on to give MSU the ball back at midfield with eight minutes left.
The fumble led to MSU’s final touchdown and the nail in the Penn State coffin. Sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne found junior wide receiver Jayden Reed in the corner of the endzone on fourth and 15 to give MSU a 10 point lead with five minutes left.
But MSU’s big plays were not over.
On the ensuing kickoff, freshman linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote knocked the ball loose again, and redshirt sophomore Justin White recovered, all but ending the Nittany Lions’ hopes to win the snow bowl.
The sloppiness of the closing stretches of the game was thanks to the whiteout conditions in East Lansing. Early on, the snow was not a problem for either squad, as 21 points were scored in the first quarter.
The Spartans started with the ball and scored on the opening possession after an eight-play, 76-yard drive that was catalyzed by a 40-yard pass from Thorne to freshman tight end Maliq Carr. The drive was capped off by a two-yard Walker touchdown run.
It was the start of yet another dazzling performance from Walker, who finished with 138 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. Just like he has all season, Walker put the team on his back in big moments and broke off big runs when it mattered.
The intensity from the offense was matched on the other side of the ball. In his final game in Spartan Stadium, Beesley nearly intercepted Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford’s first pass, and MSU’s defense forced a punt.
The complementary football that Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker preaches about was in full effect early for MSU. After the punt, MSU manufactured a nine-play, 99-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Thorne to redshirt sophomore Tre Mosley to put MSU up 14-0.
The two first-quarter touchdowns from MSU were the first touchdowns allowed by Penn State in the first quarter all season. The Nittany Lion defense, which came into the game ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense, came out of the gates sluggish, and MSU pounced.
After the slow start, Penn State got things going on its second offensive possession. Redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford picked on MSU’s struggling secondary to get the Nittany Lions on the board. Junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough could not cover Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson, leading to a 27-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
The Nittany Lion offense continued to roll in the second quarter, despite being pelted with snowballs on the sideline by MSU’s student section. After forcing another MSU punt, Clifford found Dotson again immediately on a skinny post for a 30-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14.
The quick blows from Penn State did not help slow down the Spartan offense, though. Michigan State added a field goal on its next possession after the drive stalled inside Penn State’s 10-yard-line to regain a 17-14 going into halftime. The Spartans finished with 278 yards and 17 points in the first half against the Big Ten’s best defense.
The all-white uniforms became an advantage for the Nittany Lions in the second half as the field became blanketed in snow. After MSU forced a punt, Payton Thorne gave Penn State the lead immediately. Thorne under-threw Reed and the ball ended up in the hands of Penn State’s Daequan Hardy for a pick-six to put them up 20-17 early in the third quarter.
Once again, Michigan State answered the quick strike from the Nittany Lion defense with a suffocatingly-slow scoring drive in response. MSU methodically moved the ball 75 yards down the field over the next nine minutes of the third quarter to find the endzone on a Thorne quarterback sneak to regain a three-point lead.
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The narrow lead proved to be enough for the Spartan defense to hold over the final quarter of the game. On three of Penn State’s final four drives, they walked away with 0 points, thanks to a turnover on downs and two forced fumbles from Michigan State.
The Nittany Lions added another touchdown with 0:43 seconds left to cut the lead to 30-27, but Michigan State recovered the onside kick after to officially close out the game.
The win gives MSU a 10-2 record to finish the year—MSU’s first season with double-digit wins since 2017. The win will also most likely cement MSU inside the top-12 of the final College Football Playoff ranking, making them eligible for a New Year’s Six Bowl for the first time since going to the Playoff in 2015.
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