No. 8 Penn State hosts Spartans with eyes on another prize

They'll probably try to avoid it, but no one can blame members of Penn State's football team if they are playing a little scoreboard-watching during warm-ups Saturday.

Three-and-a-half hours before the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten) take the field for their Senior Day finale against Michigan State (3-8, 1-7), there is a pretty significant conference game taking place at the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio, between No. 3 Michigan (10-1, 7-1) and No. 2 Ohio State (10-1, 7-1).

If the favored Buckeyes take care of business and defeat the Wolverines for the 12th time in 13 years, Penn State will take the field with a chance to go to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis by virtue of its dramatic 24-21 comeback win over Ohio State earlier this season. However, Michigan, which defeated the Nittany Lions 49-10 back on Sept. 24 at the Big House, owns the tiebreaker if it can upset the Buckeyes.

Penn State was just 2-2 after that ugly loss in Ann Arbor and some restless Nittany Lions fans were calling for head coach James Franklin to be fired. But seven consecutive Big Ten wins, including one that featured a 17-point fourth quarter and 14-point comeback against Ohio State, has changed the atmosphere in State College dramatically.

“It's surreal,” defensive end Evan Schwan said. “I never thought as a freshman that we'd be in the position we are now. I'm very proud of everyone on the team, the fans and staff for sticking with us and working through the tough times.”

Schwan knows all about those times. He was an underclassmen during the toughest years in program history, when the NCAA levied brutal sanctions — banning the team from a bowl game for two years, gutting its scholarship counts and allowing players to transfer without having to sit out.

Now, Schwan is one of 12 seniors who are helping lead the way and getting crucial contributions from their younger teammates who have elevated their game in what's been a dominant run since their last loss to the Wolverines.

An offensive turnaround under first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead has reaped massive reward. The defense has done the same with two of its biggest pieces — linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell back.

Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions aren't erring on special teams and are winning second halves every week.

They'll try to continue those trends against a Michigan State team that has gone the other way. The Spartans won the Big Ten title last season but haven't been able to ride a youth movement like the Nittany Lions. Michigan State has started nine true freshmen this season and will likely be without top defensive lineman Malik McDowell again in this one.

“Obviously, this is a unique situation,” Franklin, who went 6-6 and 7-5 in his first two seasons at Penn State, said. “Like I mentioned before, we're tough to beat at home when that stadium is rocking with 107,000. We're going to need that on Saturday.”

Michigan State has shown that it won't go down easily. The Spartans nearly upset Ohio State last week at home, losing 17-16 after failing to convert a go-ahead two-point conversion with 4:41 remaining. Running back LJ Scott continues to play his best football, running for a career-high 160 yards and a touchdown against the Buckeyes while also catching a 64-yard touchdown pass. The sophomore has run for more than 100 yards in four of the last five games.

“There are positives out there,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “There are a lot of positives and we're a very young football team in a lot of respects, but it doesn't help ease the pain when you lose and you lose close.”

Michigan State has led in every game it has played this season but still finds itself at 3-8 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten heading into the finale at Penn State. Last week's loss to Ohio State was no different as missed opportunities and a handful of crucial penalties kept the Spartans from the win.

The failure to convert the two-point conversion in the fourth quarter was just one example of not executing down the stretch and it was followed by a sack and interception in the last minute.

“I think we've had chances throughout every football game we've played this year,” Dantonio said. “We've been ahead, and then something's happened. That's the game. We gotta be able to make plays at the end of a football game, this one's no different.”