Penn State's loss at Michigan State last season ended any faint hopes the Nittany Lions had at making the College Football Playoff. The game helped vault the Spartans to an unexpected 10-win season, and led to high expectations heading into 2018 as they opened the season at No. 11 in the AP Poll. Things have fallen back to earth a bit this season for Mark Dantonio's squad as they sit at 3-2 following a brutal home loss to Northwestern, and mounting injury concerns.
Michigan State returns many key players, including linebacker Joe Bachie, who we profiled last year. But if Penn State is going to avoid the same fate as 2017, they must contain quarterback Brian Lewerke, who torched the Nittany Lions in East Lansing.
Like the entire Michigan State team, Lewerke has been inconsistent through their first five games. Though his completion percentage sits at 64.2 percent, he has thrown as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns. The Spartans running game is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry, and a lot of the pressure of the offense has fallen on the quarterback. After their loss Saturday to Northwestern, Dantonio was asked if he considered pulling Lewerke. “I did not think that the situation warranted that. He's got to play better obviously than he did. It's a team game; you gotta look at the film and see what happened,” Dantonio responded.
Regardless of Lewerke’s struggles so far this season, Penn State head coach James Franklin is not underestimating him. In his press conference Tuesday, Franklin was asked how about the keys to defending the veteran quarterback and said, “I think obviously his mobility is a major factor. Being able to make sure that we can take some of those easy throws away from him, keep him in the pocket so he can't extend plays.”
If Penn State can limit the Michigan State run game, forcing Lewerke into those uncomfortable passing downs will be a key for the defense. The defensive line will be tasked with disrupting Leweke on Saturday and have an added boost with the return of defensive end Shane Simmons. The Nittany Lions know all too well that if Michigan State can hang around, Lewerke is more than capable of pulling off another upset that could once again end any hope of Playoff aspirations.