CHAMPIONS OF THE EAST: Penn State wins the Big Ten East championship; advances to title game
UNIVERSITY PARK — Everything has remarkably fallen into place for Penn State over the past two months, so there was no way the Nittany Lions were going to let their golden opportunity slip away Saturday.
It looked for a while, though, like that might happen against Michigan State, which led by two at halftime.
Then came the second half. And what a second half it was.
The Lions destroyed the Spartans, scoring 35 unanswered points, to cruise to a 45-12 victory that locked up the Big Ten East title and spot in next week’s conference championship game.
“It feels really good to be in this position,” said receiver Chris Godwin, wearing a hat that read Big Ten East champions, “and it’s an honor to help Penn State get back to where it was and where we want to be.”
There’s probably not a person alive, outside of the PSU program, who honestly believed the Lions would be where they are today. Certainly not after a 2-2 start that included a 49-10 loss at Michigan.
But, eight straight wins later, the Lions (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) have shocked the college football world by winning the country’s toughest division and giving themselves a chance for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
They’ll play Wisconsin in next week’s Big Ten title game, and with a win there, the Lions will have an impressive resume that could land them in the Final Four. They’re ranked No. 7 in the CFP and should move up at least one spot after No. 3 Michigan lost to No. 2 Ohio State.
“It’s kind of surreal,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “It’s almost like, people say all the time, the stars aligned.”
McSorley had a sensational day, exactly what the Lions needed as Michigan State did everything it could to slow down Saquon Barkley and the PSU running game.
McSorley completed 17-of-23 passes for 376 yards and four touchdowns, all in the second half. Penn State has been a second-half team all season, and that was the case again Saturday.
Michigan State (3-9, 1-8) scored on all four of its first-half possessions, moving the ball down the field at will on PSU’s defense. But the defense toughened up when it had to in the red zone, shutting down each of the Spartans’ four long drives and forcing field goals by Michael Geiger.
The Lions got a field goal from Tyler Davis and later took a 10-9 lead on a 1-yard leap over the top by Barkley with 2:14 remaining in the first half. The Spartans had enough time to drive themselves at the end of the half and took a 12-10 lead to the locker room on Geiger’s 21-yard field goal.
“We have done a great job making adjustments at halftime,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
The Lions did it again this time.
The second half started off perfectly for PSU, with the defense setting the tone by holding Michigan State to a three-and-out. Evan Schwan sacked Tyler O’Connor for a 10-yard loss on third down from the 18, forcing a punt from inside the Spartans’ 10.
The Lions got the ball at their own 48, and five plays later, McSorley connected with Chris Godwin for a go-ahead 34-yard TD strike with 11:02 left in the third. Godwin ran a perfect stop-and-go route on the play to free himself down the left sideline.
Penn State’s defense allowed one first down on the Spartans’ next drive, then shut it down. The Lions got the ball back at their 31 and turned in one of the highlights of the night to jumpstart the rout.
On second-and-12 from the MSU 45, McSorley scrambled free from pressure and could have taken off to run for 10-15 yards. Instead, he kept his eyes down the field and spotted tight end Mike Gesicki open down the left sideline. McSorley threw a perfect pass, Gesicki caught it as two defenders closed and fell into the end zone to make it 24-12.
“It’s something that I’ve kind of always been taught,” McSorley said of keeping his focus down the field. “Coach (Joe) Moorhead always says move in the pocket with your eyes downfield, never get your eyes down looking at the rusher.”
Michigan State drove into PSU territory on its next possession, but O’Connor fumbled a snap, and safety Troy Apke recovered at his own 34.
It took just two play for the Lions to find the end zone this time, as McSorley connected with a wide-open Godwin for a 59-yard score to make it 31-12 with 2:05 left in the third.
Penn State scored 21 points in the third quarter to turn a slim deficit into a blowout. It did so by getting big plays from the offense, but it was the defense taking control of the game that turned the tables.
Brandon Bell led the way on defense with 18 tackles, and after gaining 256 yards in the first half, Michigan State had only 87 in the second.
“I want to thank the best coaching staff in the country,” Franklin said after the game, giving a nod to the guys who have helped the Lions make all of their game-changing halftime adjustments.
The Lions continued to pour it on in the fourth quarter as backup tailback Andre Robinson scored on a 14-yard run, then later caught a short pass from McSorley and turned it into a 40-yard TD with 3:40 to go.
That last score was viewed by many as a statement touchdown by the Lions, who were not too happy with how Michigan State ran it up in last year’s 55-16 win in East Lansing (see notebook on Page B2 for more on that).
The Lions came into the day in a weird position, needing a win by Ohio State before their game but also having to focus on playing well themselves regardless of that outcome.
“It plays on your mind a little bit,” Godwin said of the team’s mentality. “We’re not naive to the fact of what’s going on outside of our program. … We did a great job all week preparing, not worrying about anything outside of our program, and I think it really showed today.”