Nittany Lion Look Back (And Ahead)

Minnesota/Indiana

I’m not going to say I jinxed Penn State’s unbeaten start to the season with my article from last week detailing its position in the College Football Playoff race. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t think about that a bit as the final seconds ticked away in Saturday’s 31-26 win for Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers fed off of an electric home crowd to capture the program’s biggest win in 80 years.

The Nittany Lions had managed to navigate a challenging run of games, beating Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State in consecutive weeks, but couldn’t sink the boat of PJ Fleck’s now 9-0 Gophers.

Having trailed by 11 at halftime, Penn State had chances to win the game in the second half, but turnovers in the red zone and a few head-scratching officiating decisions on the Nittany Lions’ final drive doomed their defeat.

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Looking Back

Star of The Game: Rashod Bateman

It was a day to forget for the Penn State secondary, with missed tackles and blown assignments plaguing the back end of the Nittany Lions’ defense most of the game. Rashod Bateman, arguably Minnesota’s best player, tormented Penn State to the tune of 7 catches for 203 yards and a touchdown. He was inexplicably left open on several occasions, including on the Gophers’ opening possession, which saw him evade an attempted tackle from Garrett Taylor, race down the sideline and ease into the end zone for six. It was the first of many big plays Bateman would make.

Moment of Magic: Red zone turnovers propel Gophers

I don’t think there was one defining play that set the Gophers apart from Penn State on Saturday. Rather, untimely turnovers while the Nittany Lions were marching propelled Minnesota to a win. Penn State’s offense actually moved the ball as consistently as it has all season, but turnovers on the plus side of the field proved costly. Sean Clifford threw three interceptions inside the 20 — to be fair to him, though, two of those could have (should have) been overturned because of pass interference by Minnesota. The Nittany Lions also turned the ball over on downs inside the 10 after an impressive drive stalled midway through the fourth quarter.

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Looking Ahead

Penn State dominates series with Indiana

Penn State is 21-1 all-time against the Hoosiers, it’s best record against any Big Ten opponent. James Franklin is 5-0 against Indiana in his time in charge of the Nittany Lions.

Avoiding a hangover

In each of the past two seasons, Penn State has suffered some gut-wrenching losses to other ranked opponents and compounded those losses with defeats in the next game to teams the Nittany Lions were expected to beat. In 2017 and 2018, Penn State lost nail-biters to Ohio State and followed those up by losing to underdog Michigan State teams. They’ll be eager to put that narrative behind them when they take on Indiana at Beaver Stadium. The Hoosiers are playing well at 7-2 and might even be ranked in the latest College Football Playoff poll. Still, you’d expect the Nittany Lions to handle business in this one.

Ramsey’s time to shine

For most of this season, Hoosiers coach Tom Allen has deployed a two-quarterback system with both Michael Penix Jr. and Peyton Ramsey both seeing substantial playing time. However, Penix Jr. suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks ago, meaning Ramsey is now the No. 1 guy in Bloomington. In his first start of the season against Nebraska, Ramsey passed for a career-high 351 yards in an Indiana win.

Penn State Preview: Minnesota

Penn State v. MINNESOTA (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 4 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) at No. 17 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0).

Venue: TCF Bank Stadium, featuring a capacity of 50,805.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 39 degrees and mostly cloudy.

The line: Penn State –6.5

Last week: Penn State and Minnesota each had a bye.

All-time series: Penn State leads 9-5.

Last meeting (2016): Penn State earned a dramatic 29-26 overtime win at Beaver Stadium, as Saquon Barkley rushed for a touchdown on the Nittany Lions’ first play in the extra session. The play helped spark an impressive run that included a win over No. 2 Ohio State en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance for the Nittany Lions.

Throwback classic (1993): Here’s a good trivia tidbit for fans: Minnesota was Penn State’s first Big Ten opponent, with the Nittany Lions earning a 38-20 victory on Sept. 4, 1993, at Beaver Stadium. The teams combined for more than 100 pass attempts, as Bobby Engram became the first player in program history to catch four touchdown passes.

Overview: Coming into the season, there was a good chance Penn State would have a November showdown against another undefeated team. The smart thinking had the game occurring in Columbus, though, not Minneapolis. Ohio State still looms, though Penn State will need to dispatch the upstart Gophers, having an against-the-odds kind of season that the typically ordinary Big Ten West teams have once a decade or so. Northwestern last season and Iowa in 2015 are two recent examples.

Perhaps the most impressive trait for this year’s Nittany Lions squad is their collective focus. They’ve won big and small, stayed ahead in tough environments, started fast, and have also closed out games. There’s a sense they’re truly battle-tested, so whatever they see Saturday against Minnesota, it won’t be anything they haven’t seen before.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions hold the Gophers to less than 28 points. Minnesota’s offense has been consistently good all season, scoring at least 28 each game and averaging 41 in its five Big Ten contests. Gaudy numbers, even if against supposedly the weakest division in the conference and Rutgers and Maryland.

Minnesota wins if: the Gophers’ ground game can wear down the Nittany Lions. Based on numbers, Minnesota can win a shootout, though the Gophers will need to sustain drives that’ll test Penn State’s depth along the defensive line and in the linebacking corp. Minnesota averages 205 rushing yards per game, with Penn State allowing only 68. If the Gophers finish Saturday anywhere near the latter mark, their chances of winning are incredibly slim.

Keep an eye on: the offensive play-calling. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has faced more criticism than you’d think for a team 8-0 and ranked No. 4 — and it’s easy to argue most of that criticism has been unwarranted — and it’ll be interesting to see if he dials up anything unexpected after having an extra week to think over the game plan.

Trivia tidbit: Penn State’s been ranked in the AP poll for 51 straight weeks, the third-longest streak in program history.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 28, Minnesota 24

Vince Lungaro: Penn State 33, Minnesota 20

From The Archives: Penn State V. Minnesota (1993)

FBL_From The Archives (Minnesota)

Shelly Hammonds said the goal was to win the Big Ten. He was right, just only a year later.

Hammonds has one of the more distinguishable, if sometimes overlooked, Penn State careers in recent decades. He was a standout high school running back in South Carolina, choosing to play for the Nittany Lions over close-to-home programs such as the Gamecocks and Clemson Tigers.

At Penn State, he switched between defense and offense, setting the freshman record for running yards in a game against Boston College while also playing cornerback. Actually, that was the biggest adjustment for Hammonds, who said learning how to play corner after starring as a safety in high school took time while routinely going against the other team’s best receiver.

Playing both sides is incredibly difficult, with few players across all of college football doing so. Excelling in an area where so few do actually came naturally for Hammonds, as he explains it, since he “pretty much never came off the field in high school.” Hammonds, though, played all three phases of the game for Penn State, also returning kicks.

That leads us to that Big Ten premonition.

Coming into Penn State’s first season in the conference in 1993, Hammonds was the team’s leading returning rusher, though with a backfield that included future Heisman Trophy finalist Ki-Jana Carter, Hammonds focused mainly on his time as a cornerback and kick returner. He learned Penn State would start competing in the Big Ten after committing to the program, though if anything, the switch further strengthened his decision.

“We had high expectations for that season (1993), and we were super-hyped about being in the Big Ten and having an opportunity to further the Penn State brand to a conference,” Hammonds said. “Having an opportunity to play in the same conference as powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan was going to help us expand the brand and put us into more households than we were before.

He added: “We understood it was going to be a challenge, and we truly expected it to be tough. I’ll be honest with you: Our expectation was to win the Big Ten that year. It didn’t happen, but that was our expectation.

Hammonds helped Penn State get going against the Gophers in Penn State’s season opener, returning four kickoffs for 148 yards, an average of 37 yards per return, as John Black ’62 noted in The Football Letter, recounting Penn State’s 38-20 victory at Beaver Stadium in early September.

Fans were surprised if they were expecting the old-school Big Ten style of play. The teams combined for more than 100 pass attempts, with Bobby Engram setting a school record with four receiving touchdowns.

Hammonds lined up against Engram in practice, noting that Engram’s quickness, route running, and ability to make tough catches made him so difficult to defend.

“Certain guys had that knack for making big plays — Bobby was that guy,” Hammonds said. “Obviously, his film bears that out. With his highlight films, he had the knack for making the big play.”

Penn State finished the season 10-2 — losing only to the Buckeyes and Wolverines — and capped the season with a dominant 31-13 victory over No. 6 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Penn State entered the bowl ranked No. 13 and moved up to No. 8 to end the year.

The Nittany Lions finished 1992 with a 7-5 mark, with Hammonds saying that was one reason why there was such a strong emphasis to finish the ’93 campaign strong, which they did. Penn State won its final five games in ’93, setting the stage for one of the program’s most memorable seasons ever the following year.

“We ended on a high note by beating a really good Tennessee team, and that catapulted the team for the following season,” Hammonds said. “That’s the thing I remembered. We made up our mind the 1993 season wasn’t going to be a copycat of the 1992 season, where we went into a tailspin and never recovered.

Hammonds now lives in South Florida and works for the FBI. He typically tries to get back to campus at least once a year for a game, though his schedule is busy. In addition to his job, he has children who are active in sports.

He’s had a chance to meet James Franklin, saying he loves what Franklin is doing with the team.

“I respect what he’s done with the program, and what he’s done with recruiting. It’s been a tough road to travel, but he’s done a phenomenal job.”

There’s an additional connection for Hammonds with the program, with Wally Richardson overseeing the Football Letterman’s Club. Richardson is also a South Carolina native, and Hammonds helped host him during the recruiting process when Richardson visited campus.

Hammonds usually stays with Richardson when he comes into town, and those types of connections are meaningful, now and also back then.

Hammonds said folks back home might’ve been surprised he chose to attend Penn State, though he felt it was a natural fit. He noted Penn State’s academics and the team’s academic advisor just as much when talking about his decision to come here and play for Joe Paterno, with Paterno and other officials emphasizing life after football.

“Sometimes people get so invested in football, they forget it’s only a small part of your life,” Hammonds said. “You are so much more than that. For everybody, the game is going to end eventually. You have your whole life after that, and that’s the part that Joe preached. It’s what are you going to do after that, that’s going to matter.

There was a real sense he’d be taken care of, which was important to him and especially for his mom. Add that to Penn State’s ability to play for national titles, and that helped bring Hammonds away from the “hot bed” of South Carolina and Clemson, as he described.

“South Carolina and Clemson were huge,” Hammonds said. “It was probably a shock to a lot of people that I committed to Penn State, but coming here felt like the right place for me.”

Minnesota Chapter expanding ‘Penn State footprint’

Emily Zuber

Minnesota Chapter President Emily Zuber visited the Nittany Lin Shrine on a recent visit to University Park. The 2004 Penn State graduated has served as chapter president since 2016.

You could say that this weekend has been 15 years in the making for Emily Zuber.

Perhaps, even longer.

Her story transcends football, or geographic regions, though everywhere along the line, Penn State has figured prominently in her story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Zuber started visiting Penn State at an early age, the result of having four older sisters who all earned degrees from University Park. Zuber followed, graduating in 2004 from the College of the Liberal Arts, specializing in labor and industrial relations.

There’s a 19-year difference between Zuber and her oldest sister, though the five siblings always had (and always will) have the Penn State thread connecting them. After graduating, Zuber moved to Minnesota, following the path already taken by two of her sisters, and having that family foundation eased her transition to the Midwest.

Also helping with her post-grad move was finding fellow alumni. Penn State was/is such a big part of her life, and her sisters were already familiar with the Alumni Association’s Minnesota Chapter, offering a natural segue for Zuber. She attended a few meetings, helped the board with some events, and then she became an at-large member before elevating to the role of vice president in 2014. Two years later, she stepped into the president’s role, with her term ending next year.

The last few weeks have been particularly interesting for Zuber, building up to Saturday’s anticipated football game between No. 5 Penn State and No. 13 Minnesota. Both squads are 8-0, a mark that Minnesota hasn’t reached since 1941.

Zuber laughed while saying she was disappointed that ESPN’s wildly popular show, College GameDay, passed on broadcasting from Minneapolis — the crew will instead head to Tuscaloosa for a matchup between the country’s two top teams, Alabama and LSU —though there’s a serious undertone in what the game means not only to the football teams, but also to the Minnesota Chapter.

There’ll be a large influx of Penn Staters coming to town, and Zuber hopes that alumni and friends see they have a presence in the state year-round.

“I want them to know that the Penn State footprint is far and wide and very involved,” said Zuber, an IT business analyst. “We’re making sure that Minnesota knows who Penn State is and the good that we’re providing in the community.”

Penn State at Minnesota (Photo/Steve Manuel)

The Minnesota Chapter welcomed alumni and friends prior to the Nittany Lions’ battle against the Gophers in 2013. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

This weekend represents a little bit of a Homecoming for Zuber, she said, with the chapter hosting a mixer Friday night. The event will feature the Pep Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Nittany Lion, with locals and visitors welcomed alike. There’s no fee to attend, with the chapter simply asking for donations for its scholarship fund; the scholarships are awarded to local students attending Penn State.

The scholarship fund continues to grow — now standing at more than $5,000 per year and recently awarded to two students — and Zuber proudly points out that’s just one way the chapter makes a difference, saying their impact goes beyond fundraising for their own school.

Group members annually volunteer at a local food bank, packaging boxes and stocking shelves, in addition to donating to help stop child abuse in Minnesota. The chapter also regularly supports THON through various events, with a focus on representing their alma mater with zest and devotion.

“We give back to the community, and we donate time and money,” Zuber said. “We’re making an impact in the overall Minnesota community, and it’s exciting to be a part of that. Penn State is doing that.”

People are recognizing the chapter’s impact, with the group partnering with Penn State legend Ki-Jana Carter, who now owns a marketing and merchandising company in Florida. Carter worked with the chapter on producing T-shirts, blankets, and bags, which will be available at the mixer Friday. Moyer’s Jeweler, meanwhile, donated a bracelet inspired by a Penn State alumna — she won a contest with her outstanding design — that’ll go toward the scholarship fundraiser.

These are just a few examples of the resourcefulness of the Minnesota Chapter, which is enjoying increased membership, resulting in 88 members and 77 households — the latter is just two off of the group’s all-time record. There’s concise and detailed information on the chapter’s website about the value in joining, along with some cool trivia.

There are over 1,800 Penn State alumni living in the state and Western Wisconsin, and there’s also a David Letterman-style Top 10 list outlining why Penn Staters should join the chapter.

For Zuber, the reasons are plentiful, and also personal. She began visiting University Park when she was 2 and attended her first football game at 3 years old. With four older siblings paving the way for her to become a Nittany Lion, you could easily make the argument she was born into the Penn State family.

And she doesn’t want to ever leave.

“It’s a part of who I am, and that’s a piece of me that I don’t ever want to lose,” Zuber said of her Penn State identity. “The connection, the tradition, it’s important.”

There are nearly 300 Alumni Association affiliate groups, spanning geographic regions, academic colleges, and shared interests. You can view a full list and connect with Penn Staters anytime at alumni.psu.edu/groups, and stay updated on the Minnesota Chapter by following the group on Facebook and Twitter.

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Penn State Ranked No. 4 In First College Football Playoff Rankings Of The Season

Penn State’s schedule over the past three games has been a gauntlet. 

The Nittany Lions remain unbeaten after navigating through a tricky primetime win at Iowa, holding off Michigan in the White Out and exercising some demons with a 28-7 win at Michigan State. 

While further tests await, including this weekend’s clash with surprise unbeaten Minnesota and a showdown at “The Horseshoe” with Ohio State, Penn State is right in the thick of the College Football Playoff race through eight games. 

On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff committee revealed its first Top-25 of the season, with Coach James Franklin’s team checking in at No. 4. 

This marks the first time the program has been ranked inside the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings at any point.

Penn State trails No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama at the top of the rankings, but edged the defending national champs Clemson at No. 5 and Georgia at No. 6.

This weekend’s opponent, the Golden Gophers, appeared at No 17. Other Big Ten companions Wisconsin (13), Michigan (14) and Iowa (18) were all also ranked. 

You can see the full rankings at the bottom of this story. 

A berth in the College Football Playoff for Penn State could hinge on the Nov. 23 matchup in Columbus against the Buckeyes. The winner of that game will almost certainly win the Big Ten East Division and earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. 

Win the Big Ten title game and Penn State is essentially a lock to make the Playoff as an unbeaten conference champion. 

Still, a path does exist for the loser of the Penn State-Ohio State game to still find its way into the committee’s final four. 

In the Nittany Lions’ case — with wins over the likes of the Wolverines, Hawkeyes, Pitt (Yes, the Panthers have been solid since their loss to Penn State in September), and potentially Minnesota and Indiana  — their final resume as a one-loss team is going to be just as strong as any other contending team at the end of the season.

Penn State would obviously need some help in that scenario, namely needing the likes of Georgia, Oregon, Utah and Oklahoma to lose again between now and the final selection show on Dec. 8.

There’s plenty of football to be played. And all of that being said, my focus is on Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota.

I’m just eager to see Penn State go 1-0 this week.

We Are! 

— Vincent Lungaro ’18

Full Rankings 

1. Ohio State

2. LSU

3. Alabama

4. Penn State

5. Clemson

6. Georgia

7. Oregon

8. Utah

9. Oklahoma

10. Florida

11. Auburn

12. Baylor 

13. Wisconsin

14. Michigan

15. Notre Dame

16. Kansas State

17.  Minnesota

18. Iowa

19.  Wake Forest

20. Cincinnati

21. Memphis

22. Boise State

23. Oklahoma State

24. Navy

25. SMU

Special Commitment

DSC_5832

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Jake Zembiec has been around the sport of football for half his life. Mostly playing, though the last few years have seen a shift to a coaching and mentoring role.

More on that shortly.

Only, football doesn’t tell his whole story. Really, not even close. There’s much more going on, and it’s important to Zembiec for fans to understand that.

He’s on a path to become a physical therapist and plans to attend graduate school next summer, most likely close to his parents’ home in Rochester, New York. He’s missed plenty of time with them over the last four years, playing football and studying at Penn State, and making up for those missed opportunities motivates that decision.

He completed two internships and shadowed an orthopedic surgeon over the last year, an example of his detailed preparation.

His mom, Maureen, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Or, as Zembiec said, she “defeated breast cancer twice,” an indication of his competitive mentality. His mom’s resilience inspired Zembiec to volunteer at local clinics, where he’d set up and tear down meeting spaces and conference rooms as a way of helping out.

The family also routinely gave back during breast cancer awareness walks, serving as road marshals. Nowadays, Zembiec returns to his former elementary school, speaking with youngsters who still view him as a superstar, even if he laughs while saying he no longer sees himself that way.

His legacy lives on back home through his playing days at Aquinas Institute, a Catholic high school in Rochester, and his name carries considerable weight. So, while football is the reason for most of the attention he’s received, it’s not how Zembiec defines himself.

“I take so much pride in academics and being a good guy in the community, and for people to only see you as a football player, sometimes that’s frustrating,” said Zembiec, who’s been selected as a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar at Penn State.

“As you start to move your way up in recruiting and you go to all these All-American games, people start to forget about the other stuff that makes you who you are. I want to get as much recognition for my grades in high school as I did for making the Elite 11.”

He added: “I think it’s special, the commitment you have to have to be successful in more than just football here.”

Excelling as a student-athlete at Penn State is perhaps the inevitable next step for Zembiec, who grew up surrounded by high expectations from nearly everyone who knew him.

He started playing football at age 11, training with his dad in the backyard — “that’s all you need really, if you’re willing to put in the work,” he said. He was bigger and taller than most other kids his age, and a self-described natural athlete.

As he matured and the playing field leveled out, Zembiec said it became about who was going to work the hardest. A fierce competitor on and off the field, Zembiec kept on grinding.

His father, Tom, is the one who put Jake on the map, he said, writing emails and letters to coaches throughout the region and country. His dad was his quarterback coach starting in middle school, and the two traveled quite a bit during Zembiec’s senior year in high school.

The hard work paid off with a scholarship at Penn State, and he enrolled early, always wanting to outwork everyone. Zembiec’s commitment garnered plenty of attention, as he was rated a four-star recruit by multiple outlets and the No. 1 player in New York and the No. 10 quarterback in the country by Rivals.

Shortly after he arrived on campus, he was introduced to a packed crowd at Pegula Ice Arena during a men’s ice hockey game, and the fans roared at the mention of his name.

Zembiec, now a senior, saw playing time in a handful of Blue-White games, though never during the regular season. He possessed a strong arm, though didn’t have the chance to fully display his skills because of one injury or another.

blue White-42118-FAKE HO

Jake Zembiec (7) finished the 2018 Blue-White game 6-for-12 with 39 passing yards and a touchdown, and also added 36 rushing yards on six carries. Photo Credit: Penn State/Patrick Mansell

He missed his junior year because of complications with his wrist, and shoulder surgery further derailed his progress. Zembiec knew it’d be near-impossible to move up the depth chart because some days his shoulder would feel great, and other days not so much. Coaches couldn’t rely on him, and the nagging pain started to sap his enthusiasm.

Practices would loom, with Zembiec not knowing what to expect. He began to realize it’d be unlikely he could regularly throw the way he used to, when he was leading his high school team to state championships in his sophomore and senior seasons.

Zembiec’s rebounded from what he called a low point, to now feeling totally at peace. He looks forward to practice, where he can impart his wisdom of the offense. He knows the whole playbook and can give advice from a player standpoint, while Head Coach James Franklin and Offensive Coordinator Ricky Rahne verbally coach up his teammates, he said.

Guys on the team see Zembiec as a veteran and someone who can be trusted, so it makes sense that Franklin and Rahne wanted him to stay with the program.

When the pain and injuries persisted, the two offered Zembiec a medical scholarship, something which the quarterback didn’t even know was possible. He took some time to himself, making the decision on his own and informing his parents after.

That was a little difficult. He knew his parents wanted the best for him, though only he knew the amount of pain he was experiencing. So many folks from back home saw him as a football player first and foremost, and even he acknowledged that football had been nearly everything he knew to that point.

However, with the enjoyment gone because of the physical toll, Zembiec announced on his Twitter account in August 2018 that his playing career at Penn State was ending.

“It took a little while for us to all get comfortable with it and the change,” Zembiec said. “But I think everybody realizes now (it was the best decision). When I call home to my parents, they can just tell from the tone of my voice — I’m just a lot happier with how things are going now.”

The 22-year-old Rochester native carries himself and speaks with a maturity that most people don’t attain until their 30s or 40s, if ever.

It’s be easy (and understandable) for Zembiec to be bitter, frustrated, or even angry, but he isn’t any of those things.

As Zembiec said, he didn’t hold it against anyone when injuries curtailed his development, and he’s still very much a part of the team, as Rahne pointed out.

He’s still friends with a lot of his teammates and is at practice every day, serving as an example that you don’t have to score touchdowns—or even suit up—to help propel the team forward.

“He’s able to share his story of how he’s got to where he is and show guys that there’s more than one way to contribute,” Rahne said. “We preach that as a coaching staff, and our guys really buy into that. There’s a bunch of guys on the team who people outside of this building don’t know about, but we understand they help us score every point and win games without being on the field.”

Even though he’s no longer playing, Zembiec still attracts plenty of attention. Look for him on the Penn State sideline on game day wearing a headset (and sometimes a red hat), and plenty of gold chains around his neck.

The flashy look belies his humbleness, though it’s a good representation of what starting quarterback Sean Clifford calls Zembiec’s “swagger.”

More than anything else, Zembiec is comfortable and confident with the decisions he’s made, where his future is headed, and with his Penn State career — cut short by injury, though maximized everywhere else.

“I’m so happy with my whole experience, and it’s awesome getting to come out to practice every day,” Zembiec said. “Since taking the medical, I’m just so pumped to practice every day and see the guys and be around everybody. I have a whole new perspective on how lucky I am to be here, and how special of an opportunity I have to be around this program, and be part of this football team, and run out in front of 107,000.”

Penn State Preview: Michigan State

Penn State v. Michigan State 2018 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 6 Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) vs. Michigan State (4-3, 2-2), 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Spartan Stadium, which features a capacity of 75,005.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 54 degrees with some sunshine giving way to clouds and rain at times in the afternoon.

The line: Penn State –6.

Last week: Penn State outlasted Michigan 28-21, while Michigan State had a bye.

All-time series: Michigan State leads 17-15-1.

Last meeting (2018): Michigan State escaped Beaver Stadium with a 21-17 win.

Throwback classic (2016): We’re sending it back only two years, to when Penn State demolished Michigan State 45-12 to win the Big Ten East Division title, before winning the conference championship a week later against Wisconsin in Indianapolis.

Overview: Penn State is 7-0 for the fifth time since joining the Big Ten, and while the Nittany Lions have created a ton of momentum the last few weeks (and really, the entire season), Saturday looms ahead. Michigan State has been outscored 72-10 in its last two games — losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin — and that stat actually makes the Spartans seem more dangerous. That’s how odd this game has been since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.

Penn State wins if: Sean Clifford continues to protect the ball. The first-year starter has thrown only two interceptions, and the home crowd will be thirsting for a win Saturday. It’s been almost a month since the Spartans’ last victory, a 40-31 win over Indiana on Sept. 28, and the same amount of time since Michigan State’s last home game. The atmosphere should be plenty rowdy, though won’t be anything Clifford hasn’t seen before. Protect the ball, and stay unbeaten: That’s the mantra Saturday for the superstar sophomore.

Michigan State wins if: the Spartans’ offensive line gives quarterback Brian Lewerke enough time to have downfield success. Penn State ranks fourth nationally in rush defense per game (66 yards), and Michigan State doesn’t appear to have the ground game to make it work Saturday. The Spartans average a respectable 117 yards per contest, though nothing that’ll shift the dynamic of the game. Unless a team can gain 200-plus yards against Penn State, and it doesn’t appear the Spartans have that potential, the air attack is the best bet. That’s what Michigan State will need Saturday.

Keep an eye on: Noah Cain (yes, we’re going with the true freshman running back again). Saturday will be a game when James Franklin might want to (have to?) divert from the running back rotation and go with a bruising back if the game turns into a contest of one grinding possession after another. Cain leads Penn State with 329 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Trivia tidbit: Though Michigan State leads the overall series, Penn State is ahead 14-9 since joining the Big Ten.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 34, Michigan State 30

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 30, Michigan State 21