Can PSU derail Spartan title run?
Penn State coach Joe Paterno took care of any speculation as to his future plans early in this week's press conference, when he announced he plans to return next year for his 46th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions.
Paterno is in the final year of his current contract extension.
"I am looking forward to it," said Paterno, who turns 84 next month. "I think we've struggled a little bit this year, with the youth and with the injuries and the whole bit.
"We're not where I would like us to be yet. But, I think with a good spring and a preseason practice, we could be a pretty good football team next year, and I'd like to be part of it."
That's an accurate assessment of where this year's Lions stand as they take on 11th ranked Michigan State today in their regular season finale at Beaver Stadium.
Kickoff is set for noon, and the game will be televised nationally by ESPN2.
Today is Senior Day, but this has been a youthful PSU outfit. There are 18 seniors listed as playing their final home game, but just seven upperclassmen started on offense and defense (placekicker Collin Wagner is also a senior).
The Lions started the season with true freshman Rob Bolden at quarterback, and now redshirt sophomore Matt McGloin is behind center. The squad also faced a rash of injuries, particularly on defense, as well as a tough road slate that included visits to Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State.
It has added up to a 7-4 mark (4-3 in the Big Ten). The Lions will go to a Bowl game for the 36th time under Paterno. Two New Year's Day games, the Outback and Gator Bowls, have been mentioned as possible destinations.
Spartans in title chase
Michigan State (10-1, 6-1) is one of three one-loss teams in contention for the Big Ten title and a possible trip to the Rose Bowl, along with Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Spartans are ranked 10th by the Bowl Championship Series standings. The BCS will likely take two Big Ten teams.
MSU's lone loss was to Iowa (37-6), but it did hand Wisconsin its only setback (34-24). The Spartans did not face the Buckeyes this season.
The Spartans have faced adversity, including coach Mark Dantonio's heart attack following MSU's overtime win over Notre Dame. Last week they almost saw their title hopes go up in smoke when Purdue led them in the fourth quarter, only to rally for a 35-31 victory by scoring 22 points in the final frame.
Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins directs the MSU attack. He has completed 199 of 298 passes for 2,553 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 9 interceptions.
The Spartan receiving corps features Mark Dell (49 receptions, 761 yards, 6 TDs) and B.J. Cunningham (47-578, 7 TDs). Junior Keshwan Martin has 28 catches and is also a dangerous punt returner.
Leading the rushing attack are sophomore Edwin Baker (1,069 yards, 12 TDs) and freshman Le'Veon Bell (592 yards, 8 TDs).
Michigan State's defense features senior All-American linebacker Greg Jones, a semifinalist for the Butkus and Bednarik Awards, who has a team-high 95 tackles, 41 of them solo and eight for losses.
Other Spartan notables on the defensive side are senior linebacker Eric Gordon (82 tackles), cornerback Johnny Adams, safeties Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson, tackle Jerel Worthy (three sacks) and ends Johnathan Straythorn (3.5 sacks) and Colin Neely, a Bethlehem Freedom product (2.5 sacks).
MSU placekicker Dan Conroy has connected on 14 of 15 field goal attempts this season, and senior punter Aaron Bates ranks second in the conference with a 45.1 yards per punt average.
Paterno noted that the Spartans are a senior-oriented squad that Dantonio has taken his time and patience in developing.
"They have a coach and a coaching staff that made up their minds that they were going to be willing to take their lumps early, even if it meant eliminating certain people who could help them on the field that particular year," he stated.
"Number two, they have an outstanding quarterback. Cousins is overall probably as good a quarterback as we're going to play. He's smart, he's accurate. He doesn't give you easy passes, and they've got two or three receivers that are outstanding.
"Defensively, they've become very, very aggressive. They know what they're doing. They don't do stupid things and you've got to block them every play. And sometimes that's not the easiest thing in the world to do."
Land Grant Trophy
Penn State holds a 14-12-1 advantage in the all-time series. Paterno is 13-5 against the Spartans.
Since PSU joined the Big Ten, the Michigan State game has been the regular season finale for both schools, who play for the Land Grant Trophy. The Lions are 13-4 in those games and have won the last two.
The Spartans' last victory came in 2007 in East Lansing by a 35-31 count. PSU last two wins were by scores of 49-18 (2008) and 42-14 last year.
Sparty has had problems in Happy Valley (4-8 all-time) and has dropped all eight games there since 1993. Their last win in State College was in 1965.
The teams have combined to score 1,060 points in their 17 Big Ten meetings, an average of 62.3 points per game.
The two teams will be in different Big Ten Divisions next year and after Saturday won't meet for at least two years, unless it is in the conference title game.
Paterno is seeking his 100th all-time win against a Big Ten opponent. PSU is 99-59 vs. the Big Ten under Paterno, 90-52 since joining the conference in 1993.
NITTANY LINES - McGloin completed 22 of 31 passes for 315 yards and 2 TDs in the Lions' 41-24 victory over Indiana at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland last week as PSU racked up 496 yards of total offense. The key play in the win came with the scored tied at 24, when safety Andrew Dailey blocked a punt that linebacker Jamie VanFleet returned for the go-ahead TD ... Dailey was named Big Ten Co-Special Teams Player of the Week ... Derek Moye caught 6 passes and Brett Brackett five, each grabbing a TD pass ... Silas Redd rushed for 50 yards and Evan Royster 48, each scoring a TD ... the Lions had a bus break down heading to the game, forcing part of the team, including Paterno, to take another on the Capital Beltway ... linebacker Gerald Hodges, defensive tackle James Terry and offensive tackle Mike Farrell all started their first career games vs. the Hoosiers ... defensive tackles Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still and offensive linemen DeOn'tae Pannell and Chima Okoli were late for the bus. Ogbu and Still were held out in the early going vs. Indiana (Terry and James Hill started) while Okoli and Pannell didn't play at all. Farrell switched from left to right tackle for the game ... center Doug Klopacz sprained his ankle in the first quarter vs. the Hoosiers and while he is listed as probable for today, Paterno expressed doubt as to his readiness earlier this week. Stefan Wisniewski would move from guard to center if Klopacz can't go ... Penn State has won 19 of its 20 Senior Day games since 1990 ... as detailed in a TIMES NEWS feature story last week, Lehighton High School grad Dave Warner is Michigan State's QB coach ... freshman punter Alex Butterworth saw his first action of the season last week filling in for Anthony Fera, who underwent an emergency appendectomy ... PSU listed Dailey and DE Kevion Lathiam, red-shirt juniors, as playing their final home games today. Paterno said Dailey is planning to enter graduate school as a business major ... Penn State didn't have classes this week. The university opened dorms on Friday for students returning for today's game, which is PSU's first post-Thanksgiving regular season finale since 1999.