Penn State faces challenge trying to run ball vs. Michigan State's top-ranked rush defense

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State will face Michigan State on Saturday afternoon in Beaver Stadium.
  • Michigan State has the top-ranked run defense in the nation, allowing 33.8 rushing yards per game.
  • PSU enters the game with the No. 13 run game in the nation, averaging 261.2 yards per game.

Two weeks ago, Trace McSorley broke free into the second level of Ohio State’s defense, ripping off an electrifying 51-yard run. Seven days prior, Miles Sanders ran 22 times for 9.1 yards a pop and zero tackles for loss.

Penn State's Miles Sanders, seen here running the ball earlier this season vs. Illinois, may find some tough sledding this Saturday vs. Michigan State, which has the nation's top-ranked run defense. AP FILE PHOTO

That’s what the Nittany Lions want on Saturday. But what they get from Michigan State might be a different story.

The Spartans — for all their troubles defending the pass — boast college football’s top rush defense. Through five weeks, Mark Dantonio’s squad has allowed 33.8 rushing yards per game and 1.32 yards per attempt. The next-best Big Ten squad is Iowa, which sits fifth in the country and lets up 84.4 rushing yards per game. Talk about a wide discrepancy.

Still, with history working against them, Miles Sanders, Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions are going to run the ball when Sparty comes to town this weekend. They have to. It’s who they are offensively in 2018.

“I think (the offensive line) is the strongest part of our offense, and we’ve found an identity running the ball,” Sanders said Wednesday. “Their run defense is real good, so it starts with being more physical than them and being patient and taking those three-yard, four-yard runs. And when it’s time to split one, split it.”

MSU prevents big runs: Problem is, the Spartans haven’t let anyone “split one” against them this year. On 128 combined attempts, no ball-carrier has broken a 20-yard run or better on Dantonio’s defense. In fact, Michigan State has given up only nine rushes of 10 yards or more, the second-best mark in the country.

That, of course, goes against what Penn State’s ground game has done so well through five games. Sanders has 21 runs of 10 yards or more, fifth-most in the country behind only Memphis’ Darrell Henderson, Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams, Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson and Clemson’s Travis Etienne. Meanwhile, McSorley has 19 such runs — one more than he had in all of 2017. Sanders and McSorley’s combined 40 is 10 more than any other running back-quarterback tandem in college football.

History favors MSU: So, something’s got to give. History says Michigan State’s rush defense, regardless of the adverse effects on its secondary, will win out.

Since 2011, Michigan State’s rush defense has ranked in the top-10 in all but one season. They’ve stood tall against the run. It’s the program’s calling card. It’s what got them to the College Football Playoff in 2015, and it’s what helped the Spartans beat Penn State in 2017. In Penn State’s 27-24 loss in East Lansing, Saquon Barkley was limited to 63 yards on 14 carries. A year earlier, Penn State running backs were held to 66 yards on 22 attempts.

Common thread: What was the common thread in those games? McSorley explained.

“They have really good linebackers that get the defense set and ready to play nasty and play aggressive. They’ve got guys on the defensive line that plug up holes, allowing their linebackers to run free and make those tackles. And then the safeties are aggressive,” McSorley said. “All those things, along with their mentality that teams aren’t going to run the ball against them, it’s given them the rush defense they’ve had over the last couple years.”

This meeting may be different: This meeting is different, though. While it’s a small five-game sample size, the Nittany Lions are running the ball better than they ever have in James Franklin’s tenure. Penn State is averaging 261.2 rushing yards per game, good for 13th in the country and second in the Big Ten.

The Nittany Lions’ previous end-of-season rushing ranks don’t look like that. With Barkley as the featured back, Penn State finished 59th, 66th and 106th in rushing yards per game in 2017, 2016 and 2015, respectively. In Franklin’s inaugural 2014 campaign, the Nittany Lions were 120th.

The issue from 2014 through last season was, in large part, an unreliable offensive line. Now that Michal Menet, Connor McGovern, Steven Gonzalez, Ryan Bates and Will Fries are moving guys off the block, running lanes are open like they’ve never been before. Sanders and McSorley are benefiting greatly, and it has established a run-first attitude on an offense known for airing things out.

Testing the trend: That 2018 trend will be tested against Michigan State.

“We have to be patient with it,” Franklin said. “I know our o-line, tight ends and running backs and coaches are looking at it as a challenge.”

Added McSorley: “They’re gonna let you run the ball, and they’re gonna make you earn it.”