Penn State did not give redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne a lot of breathing room Saturday afternoon. While there were plenty of reasons Michigan State suffered a 35-16 loss to end the regular season and likely end any hopes at a bowl game, the Nittany Lions’ front seven certainly ranks as one of the biggest reasons.
The Spartans’ offense hasn’t been especially consistent all season, especially against talented fronts. The Nittany Lions’ front certainly fits into that category, ranking in the top ten in average sacks per game heading into Saturday’s match.
“They’ve got some really talented guys with really good athleticism,” Thorne said after the game. “They work different pass rush moves, you can see it on film.”
Thorne was sacked three times throughout the evening. True freshman linebacker Abdul Carter notched two of those sacks.
In addition to those sacks, Penn State notched six quarterback hurries. In short, Thorne did not have much time to think when the Nittany Lions sent pressure.
“They did a good job today getting pressure,” Thorne said.
Penn State’s backfield havoc can’t just be measured in sacks and quarterback hurries. At multiple points throughout the game, Thorne’s passes were batted down as soon as the ball left his hand. Michigan State’s offensive line struggled to keep PSU’s defenders in check, as they would force themselves into the face of the Spartans' quarterback.
The pressure seemed to increase as the game went on. When it became crucial for Michigan State’s offense to start putting up points, Penn State’s defense seemed to tighten up further and create even more havoc in the backfield.
“It became a frenzy towards the end,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said.
In total, the Nittany Lions had 10 pass breakups (of course, not all of these came at the line of scrimmage), including two by redshirt senior defensive end Nick Tarburton.
Consistently flushed out of the pocket and facing pressure, Thorne didn’t have a very consistent night. On some drives he seemed to catch fire, dropping dimes left and right and driving the offense.
However, at other points, he would miss a receiver or leave a play on the field. In the end, Thorne completed 56% of his passes for 229 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Michigan State’s offense could really only move through the air — Thorne’s 229 passing yards accounted for roughly 90% of the offense’s total yardage.
Sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman was Thorne’s favorite target throughout the game. He finished with 91 yards on eight targets.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed didn’t have the most productive of games. Although he was targeted six times, he finished with just 36 yards. Reed also had a shaky day returning punts. He fumbled the ball twice; the second fumble came in the third quarter while Michigan State was down just 14-3. The Nittany Lions cashed in on the turnover and extended the lead to 21-3.
For the past few weeks, Michigan State’s offense seemed to be trending upward. Plenty of that had to do with a ground game that finally seemed to find some footing. In fact, in last week’s loss to Indiana, the Spartans rushed for 242 yards.
Despite that upward trajectory, the rushing attack had a paltry showing against Penn State’s talented front. Led by redshirt senior running back Elijah Collins’ 33 yards, the Spartans finished with just 25 total yards on the ground. No matter the down and distance, Michigan State’s offensive line and running backs just could not seem to crack the code of Penn State’s defensive front.
With no sort of threat presented on the ground, the Nittany Lions were happy to send blitz packages or drop back and force Thorne to make a tough throw.
With the loss in Happy Valley, Michigan State falls to 5-7 on the season, just short of bowl eligibility. The Spartans’ hopes for one final game now rest with the selection committee, who could still select MSU for an at-large bid.
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