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Last-chance Lions look to recover on the road

Written by Frank Bodani/York Daily Record | Nov 27, 2015 10:02 AM
PennState_vs_Maryland_600X320.jpg

Photo by (Jeremy Long -- Lebanon Daily News)

(Undated) -- The Nittany Lions, from players to head coach, swear they own the incentive necessary for this Thanksgiving weekend road trip.

But can they possibly match the fire from those Michigan State Spartans, suddenly surging again?

Saturday's game at Spartan Stadium figures to be the biggest uphill challenge yet for a dysfunctional Penn State team that gave away its best chances the past two games and is now sliding ever more quickly toward the edge of a cliff.

Certainly, this promising rebuilding season will take on a different turn if the Lions, as expected, lose to the No. 6 team in the country. The Spartans are playing for their seniors, a spot in the Big Ten title game and quite possibly a bid to the College Football Playoff.

Penn State? Well, there are smaller treasures, though that's not how coach James Franklin views it, speaking almost defiantly about motivation.

"We've got a chance to continue to do special things on the field and continue to build our program and our culture ..., so we're playing for a lot. Trust me, we're playing for a lot," he said. "A lot of people live and die Penn State football ..."

No matter, the Spartans and Lions are in quite different places. Penn State still hasn't beaten a ranked team this season, losing all four times despite owning leads in each. Michigan State, however, just slayed undefeated Ohio State, the defending national champs.

The Lions, again, may be without the nation's injured sack leader, Carl Nassib, and are banged up more than at any point this season, Franklin said. Their special teams are sputtering in all facets. And their much-maligned offensive line turned in one of its worst performances in the loss to Michigan. Open-field tackling continues to be an issue, even more so since losing senior safety and team captain Jordan Lucas.

It would seem untenable for the Spartans to take their foot off the gas with so much on the line. So how will these Lions respond to such circumstances?

"We have everything to prove that we're still fighting, that we're not going to give up," said safety Marcus Allen.

"Yeah, I think there's always something left to prove, unless you're the national champion," said linebacker Troy Reeder. "I think for us, we just know that the best is still yet to come. Even though this is the last game of the season, we know that we have more left in our tank. We're continuing to grow, get better and better every week."

Franklin talked about making season-long improvement, too. He swears that his offensive line is better from that awful, 10-sack beginning at Temple. It just didn't look quite that way during the beating last Saturday.

Now comes Michigan State, in some ways much like those Wolverines. They feature a dominant defense that had sprung leaks before regrouping. Both rely on pro-style quarterbacks with Spartans' Connor Cook an All-America type with 21 touchdown passes to just four interceptions. His favorite target is Aaron Burbridge, who leads the Big Ten in receptions (6.3) and receiving yards (98.5) per game.

On defense, the Spartans feature one of the most disruptive rushers around in Shilique Calhoun and have forced a Big Ten-leading 26 turnovers.

They are a most balanced team accelerating on clear highway now, and at just the right time. They have everything to play for. Meanwhile, the Lions are desperately trying to find their footing as they continue building.

Through it all, at least Franklin believes this process is working, even if the immediate results are so different from those of his next opponent.

"In a lot of ways I think we're making tremendous progress," he said. "It doesn't show up always the way everybody wants it to see, in the win-loss column or on the scoreboard, but that's coming. I feel very, very confident in that.

"And for the most part, that's why I sleep pretty well. There's a couple nights, Saturday nights I don't always sleep so well. Lay there and look at the ceiling with a thousand things going through my mind, walk into my daughters' rooms and kiss them on the head and come back into the office and stare at film for 17 hours.

"But the progress is there. Sometimes you've just got to take a step away and look at it."

Michigan State Tailgate Tales

They are taking a most unique approach to protecting their orchards in Michigan.

A Michigan State biologist will use a nearly $500,000 grant to attract more falcons to orchards to study whether they could limit increasing crop damage.

Kestrels are small falcons and the most common predatory bird in the United States. They prey on many species that cause damage to Michigan cherry trees and blueberry bushes, including grasshoppers, rodents and European starlings.

The big question, though: Could increased kestrel numbers affect those funky black squirrels thriving on Michigan State's campus and around East Lansing?

One legend claims that black squirrels, a subgroup of the common gray squirrel, were introduced to Michigan State a century ago by one of the cereal-famed Kellog brothers. The university now has a research field station named after W.K. Kellogg, who also was a wildlife conservationist. 

 

Penn State kickoff

What: Penn State (7-4, 8-2, 4-3 Big Ten) at No. 6 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1) 
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. 
Where: Spartan Stadium (75,005), East Lansing, Mich. 
TV: ESPN 
Radio: WSBA-910 AM, WGLD-1440 AM 
The line: Michigan State by 11

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