Brandon Bell, Penn State defense up to challenge
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell isn’t one to pull verbal punches, so he didn’t mince words when talking about the fact that, on his senior day, with a trip to the Big Ten East Division championship on the line, Michigan State’s offense spent the first two quarters of Saturday’s game living in the red zone.
“We were (ticked) off that they got down there,” Bell said. “We had to just bow up.”
Bell didn’t say “ticked.” The Nittany Lions did quite literally bow up and flex their muscles when it mattered, though.
Despite the fact that the visiting Spartans rolled up 256 yards in total offense and amassed 17 first downs in the first half, every time Michigan State got close, the Penn State defense rose to the occasion and locked the Spartans down.
For all those impressive statistics, the most important was that Michigan State’s four drives inside the Penn State 15 — three of which even got first-and-goal — the Spartans only ended up with a quartet of field goals to show for it and a two-point halftime lead on the Lions.
Penn State rode them momentum of those stops and completely neutralized the Spartans in the second half, and the Lions ended up winning going away, 45-12.
“It meant a lot. It’s the difference between 28-10 at the half and 12-10 at the half,” cornerback Armani Oruwariye said of the defense refusing to break over the first 30 minutes. “We knew if we could force a field goal, our offense was going to put up points. That was big.”
Michigan State averaged 5.6 yards per play in the first half, mixing a bit of everything: power runs, jet sweeps, end arounds, read options, safe passes into the soft spots of the Lion zone coverage.
The Spartans even pulled out a lateral deep in Penn State territory on which R.J. Shelton threw back to quarterback Damion Terry for 15 yards and a first down.
When Michigan State got in scoring position, though, the Lions flipped a switch defensively. Inside the Penn State 15, Michigan State ran 12 plays. Those 12 plays netted a loss of 10 yards.
“We were giving them different looks all game. But, in the red zone, our backs are against the wall,” safety Troy Apke said. “We knew we’ve got to step up and give them field goals.”
The Lions definitely seemed to become more aggressive. Apke came on a safety blitz at one point that forced Terry to step up into a Manny Bowen sack. Ryan Buchholz shot through the line on another drive to throw L.J. Scott for a 5-yard loss. Defensive end Garrett Sickels corralled Terry for a 2-yard loss on second-and-goal at the 9 to limit the Spartans options on the Michigan State’s first drive, which began at its own 13.
“In the first half, we kind of struggled getting them off schedule on first and second down,” senior defensive end Evan Schwan said. “When they got into the red zone, every time, it was kind of like an all-or-nothing mentality. We called some riskier plays, but the fact that we were able to stop them was a huge, huge momentum-swinger.”
Nittany Lion defensive players said holding Michigan State to four field goals also bolstered their own confidence in the second half.
“That gives us confidence, because we knew we could stop them after (holding) them (to) field goals,” Apke said. “We just knew we had to do it earlier in the drive.”
The third and fourth quarters looked like an entirely different game. The Spartans managed just nine first downs, 21 yards on 19 rushes and 87 yards total.
For all the problems the Penn State defense had even slowing Michigan State down in the first half, the Nittany Lions ended up holding the Spartans to their second-lowest point total of the season, 13 points under their scoring average and 50 yards beneath their yardage average.
“It was just the mentality. We knew we had to keep them to as low of points as possible,” Sickels said. “Every game Michigan State’s played this year, they’ve been up at some point. We just had to keep our poise, do our jobs and calm down.”
Michigan State was able to keep the Lions off balance and dictate down and distance over the first two quarters. In the second quarter, Penn State knocked Terry out of the game, forcing the Spartans to turn to Tyler O’Connor, less of a threat to run than Terry, the Cathedral Prep product.
Once Penn State’s offense began to move the ball and its defense came up with a couple of stops, the Nittany Lions began to take greater and greater control of the situations and dictating what the Spartans had to do to stay in the game.
Already physically beaten up, the Spartans couldn’t do that, and things quickly slipped away from them.
“We got them off schedule (in the second half),” Lion coach James Franklin said. “In the first half, we couldn’t get them off schedule. That was the difference. There were too many chunk plays in the first half.”
The game actually ended up being Michigan State’s most decisive loss of the year. The Spartans lost to Wisconsin by 24 early in the season, but, in the last month, they stayed within nine of Michigan and were a late two-point conversion from upsetting Ohio State.
Linebacker Jason Cabinda said it might have been that the Lions were a little too hyped for the game. With so much on the line and all the emotion of senior day and memories of the Spartans’ rout in East Lansing last season, the Penn State defense might have been pressing a bit early and got on its heels.
“We knew it wasn’t necessarily what they were doing. It was kind of just us, we needed to be more composed,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “More composed. More poised. Handle the tempo better. We came out, and we did that. We kind of just needed to take a breath.”
“We knew, once our feet were set, they weren’t doing anything special that could keep us on our heels,” said Bell, who finished with a game-high 18 tackles.