UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Say this for Michigan State football: despite missing a number of players on both sides of the ball Saturday, the Spartans summoned up enough resolve to nearly pull off an upset at No. 10 Penn State.
The defense applied pressure and got stops in the second half. The offense made key plays. The special teams units played big roles.
But it wasn’t enough. And it likely means MSU won’t have enough to go to a bowl game.
The Spartans made it a five-point game early in the fourth quarter, but the Nittany Lions went on a time-consuming march and delivered the knockout punch with an 12-yard touchdown pass from Sean Clifford to running back Nicholas Singleton. MSU quarterback Payton Thorne was intercepted three plays later, and PSU added another score on the next play en route to a 35-16 victory.
"We were fighting to the end. That's something that we do as a program, and our guys have bought into that, that we're never out of the fight," said Thorne, who was sacked three times and hurried six times as his offensive line continually broke down under the Nittany Lions' persistent pressure. "We've come back multiple times in games since I've been here. And so we have examples of coming back late from behind. It didn't happen today."
The season is likely over for Spartans (5-7, 3-5 Big Ten), who would need fewer than 82 six-win teams to qualify for the 41 bowl games and get help from others to get a bid based upon Academic Progress Rate scores.
Coach Mel Tucker made that point to his players and declined to answer questions to sum up MSU's season to this point. He also said it would be "an athletic department and program decision" on whether to accept a bowl invitation should that scenario arise.
"There's still a chance we may play another game, so we'll have to see," he said. "At some point I'll assess the entire season, but not right now. ... I don't know the scenarios, I don't know what makes sense for us right now. So we'll just have to wait and see."
As of late Saturday evening, with 79 spots locked in with six-win teams, it appears that won't happen unless five-win teams in front of MSU turned down invitations.
Senior safety Xavier Henderson, who along with Thorne said he did not realize there was a chance to go to the postseason with five wins, said he feels he knows what the rest of his teammates would say if it were up to them.
"Yeah, I know we would," Henderson said, "just from the competitive nature of the team."
Clifford threw four touchdown passes and went 19 of 24 for 202 yards for Penn State (10-2, 7-2). Kaytron Allen and Singleton combined for 160 rushing yards as the Nittany Lions outgained MSU, 410-254.
Thorne was 24-for-43 for 229 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and he had a 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that helped MSU pull within five. Keon Coleman caught eight passes for 91 yards, but the Spartans managed just 25 rushing yards on 25 carries.
The Spartans played without three defensive linemen (Jalen Hunt, Jeff Pietrowski and Khris Bogle), three defensive backs (Charles Brantley, Ronald Williams and Jaden Mangham) and three offensive linemen (Jarrett Horst, Matt Carrick and Brian Greene). That on top of eight suspended defensive players, three of them who were starters and two of them key backups at the time of the Oct. 29 incident at Michigan that resulted in charges being filed Wednesday against seven of them.
Tucker said after the game those who were charged remain suspended but that he reinstated Malcom Jones, the one player who was not charged. Jones practiced Thursday and Friday but did not travel to PSU.
A rough start
A week after missing field-goal attempts at the end of regulation and in overtime of their two-OT loss to Indiana, MSU benefitted from the Nittany Lions missing a pair of kicks in the first half. And the Spartans got a big boot of their own.
The game started as poorly as possible for MSU. Thorne’s backward lateral to Jayden Reed on the third play of the game fell low and was ruled a fumble. The receiver didn’t go for the ball on the turf, and the Nittany Lions recovered at the Spartans’ 29.
MSU’s defense managed to force a three-and-out, then Penn State’s Jake Pinegar’s 37-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right.
Thorne spent the first half under near-constant duress as the MSU offensive line struggled to handle Penn State’s persistent pressure up front. The Spartans gave up their first sack in three games to end their second drive, and Thorne was officially hurried three other times and had a defender in his face frequently.
Penn State entered ranked first in the Big Ten and 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 3.09 sacks per game.
"I thought our offensive line battled," Thorne said, "but (the Nittany Lions) were able to produce some pressure."
Penn State got on the board late in the first quarter, with Clifford converting on fourth-and-2 with a 7-yard pass in front of MSU cornerback Ameer Speed, then hitting tight end Theo Johnson on a third down for an 11-yard touchdown. That came as a result of presnap confusion in the Spartans’ secondary, with freshman Malik Spencer blitzing, allowing Johnson to run down the middle uncovered.
PSU made it 14-0 on its next possession, using a double pass to freeze MSU’s secondary. Clifford threw it behind the line of scrimmage on the left sideline to KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and the receiver launched a 48-yard strike to a wide-open Johnson in stride.
The Spartans watched Pinegar miss again from 28 yards out with 1:27 to play before half, then Thorne moved MSU to the Penn State 34 in hurry-up mode, but the clock was ticking when he completed a short pass to Elijah Collins in the middle of the field. The offense hustled to the line, with Thorne barely able to spike the ball with 1 second left. Freshman kicker Jack Stone boomed a 51-yard field goal — the Spartans’ longest of the season, and his first since a 43-yarder at the end of the half against Akron in Week 2.
PSU had a 245-128 yardage edge at halftime, including a 127-8 advantage on the ground. The Nittany Lions also were 4-for-8 on third down and held the Spartans to 1-for-7.
Reed fumbled a punt that Penn State recovered at the Spartans’ 17-yard line. Two plays later, Clifford hit tight end Tyler Warren for a 14-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-3 with 5:42 left in the third quarter.
MSU answered, though. Collins had a 10-yard run on fourth-and-2 to extend the drive, then Thorne found tight end Maliq Carr, who made a one-handed catch for a 9-yard touchdown to help make it 21-10 with 1:37 left in the third.
The Spartans held Penn State to three straight plays of negative yardage to stop the next drive, then Thorne converted three third-and-long passes to move MSU down the field. The junior quarterback finished it with a 2-yard scoring run, but he got drilled trying to throw the two-point conversion pass, which got knocked to the ground like he did.
"We knew we could win the game. We knew that going into the game," Henderson said. "We didn't execute as well as we could have."
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football drops season finale at Penn State, 35-16