3DownNation’s CanCon Game of the Week: Michigan State at Penn State

Photo courtesy: Mark Selders / Penn State Athletics

Last week was a rough one for the CanCon Game of the Week.

Mere hours after publishing my preview of the heavyweight Mid-American tilt that would have been Buffalo at Ohio, the game was unceremoniously canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the Bobcats roster.

Perhaps somewhat shockingly, it was the first time in this unprecedented season that our feature game got the axe and my bad luck seemed to trickle over into my Week 14 picks. I was an uninspiring 18-of-25 on the week, dropping to 165-of-226 for the year.

It’s a far less exciting slate of Canadian matchups this week, with few Canucks facing off against each other, but I’ll try to end my losing skid nonetheless. While it may not be a headline-making heavyweight tilt, a handful of homegrown talents will be trying to officially salvage a respectable season in this week’s feature contest.

Michigan State at Penn State (-14.5)
Beaver Stadium, University Park, PA
Saturday, December 12 at 9:00 a.m. PST/ 12:00 p.m. EST
Where to View: 

Unless your school is called Ohio State, Indiana, Northwestern or Iowa, the Big Ten season hasn’t gone the way you’ve expected. While those four teams at the top have combined for 21 victories and four losses, the conference’s remaining ten programs have just 20 wins altogether and are each tied at two wins apiece. For a number of established powers and rising programs, the COVID-19 shortened season has been a devastating blow to morale.

Penn State and Michigan State are two such programs and each will be looking to salvage some respectability for their teams on Saturday. For the Nittany Lions, the game comes at a point in the season where they have appeared to turn the corner. After head coach James Franklin grew them into a serious contender, the squad came out flat with losses in each of their first five games.

That trend changed two weeks ago when they were able to slap around an equally ailing Michigan and continued in a comfortable handling of Rutgers in Week 14. Now they face the Spartans for the all-important third-straight victory, a team with lower expectations but a bigger win under their belt, having miraculously upset a Northwestern squad that has already clinched a conference championship berth two weeks ago.

Key to the Penn State defence, and to their Week 15 prospects, has been a startling defensive turnaround. In their first five losses, the Lions gave up more than 30 points a game. In their first win against Michigan, they conceded just 17. Last week, they allowed just a single touchdown.

Crucial to those defensive performances have been a pair of Ottawa natives with big time pro potential.

Linebacker Jesse Luketa was thrust into the starting lineup when projected NFL first-rounder Micah Parsons opted out of the season and the former four-star recruit is just beginning to settle in to the role after some early growing pains.

An infectious personality with incredible athleticism, Luketa is the team’s defensive captain and can always be relied on to fly to the football and last week was his best game of the season by a country mile. Showing some positional soundness that he’s lacked in the past, Luketa led his group with ten big tackles and a fumble recovery.

He wasn’t alone, as fellow Canuck Jonathan Sutherland also had his best game of the year against Rutgers. Also a team captain but more often praised for his special teams tenacity, Sutherland will see approximately half of his teams defensive snaps as a package substitute.

Able to play up high, in the box or cover the slot in a pinch, Sutherland’s versatility will be key to the looks that Penn State will be able to give the Spartans. There is also no doubt both defenders are licking their lips at a chance to face a Michigan State offence that leads the conference in turnovers under quarterback Rocky Lombardi and may be starting unproven freshman Payton Thorne in his place.

On the other side of the ball, Penn State seems to have solved their own quarterback issues with Sean Clifford finding more of a rhythm and taking the bulk of the snaps after splitting time with Will Levis in the early going. Both QBs will still see action, especially if the Nittany Lions decide to let the two signal callers use their legs, but it is Clifford’s show.

Favourite target Jahan Dotson will be the target to watch in the pass game, but freshman running back Keyvone Lee has been the star the last two weeks after surpassing Devyn Ford to take the lead role. He had 229 yards in the two victories and when he’s getting the rock, watch for freshman tight end Theo Johnson doing the blocking.

The Windsor native was the highest recruited Canadian in the 2020 class and has been making an early impact with about 30 snaps a game of mostly grunt work on the ground while learning from highly-rated starter Pat Freiermuth.

Fellow freshman Malick Meiga will likely watch as he continues to redshirt while Michigan State will have no Canadians on their sideline, much to their disappointment, because well-regarded freshman tackle Justin Stevens of Nova Scotia exercised his right to opt out due to a pre-existing respiratory condition prior to the season.

Penn State is the better team here across the board and on paper it looks like their win streak will continue in their last opportunity in Happy Valley. That said, the Spartans captured lightning in a bottle when they were able to run the football and get some pressure on the quarterback against Northwestern.

This is the Nittany Lions’ chance to prove themselves after two cupcake victories and they’ll do it, but I have a feeling the Spartans will cover.

Pick straight-up: Penn State
Pick against the spread: Michigan State (+14.5)

Other Week 15 NCAA games featuring Canadians

Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech
CanCon: Jared Wayne, REC, SO (Pitt), Liam Dick, OL, FR (Pitt)
Result: 34-20 Pittsburgh

Arizona State (-11.5) at Arizona
CanCon: Cameron Fietz, QB, JR (Ari), Paris Shand, DE, FR (Ari), Leif Magnuson, OL, FR (Ari)
Pick: Arizona State

No. 1 Alabama (-32) at Arkansas
CanCon: John Metchie III, REC, SO (Ala)
Pick: Alabama

Illinois at No. 14 Northwestern (-14)
CanCon: Chase Brown, RB, SO (Ill), Sydney Brown, SS, JR (Ill)
Pick: Northwestern

Utah at No. 21 Colorado (-2.5)
CanCon: Keegan Markgraf, LS, SR (Utah)
Pick: Colorado

Minnesota at Nebraska (-10.5)
CanCon: Benjamin St-Juste, CB, JR (Minn), Tyrell Lawrence, OL, FR (Minn), Barron Miles Jr, REC, FR (Neb)
Pick: Minnesota

Northern Illinois at Eastern Michigan (-6)
CanCon: Sidy Sow, LG, JR (EMU), Jake Julien, P, SR (EMU), Woodly Appolon, FS, JR (NIU)
Pick: Eastern Michigan

Western Michigan at Ball State (-2)
CanCon: Jack Taylor, OL, FR (W.Mich)
Pick: Western Michigan

Akron at Buffalo (-32.5)
CanCon: Dominic Johnson, REC, SR (Buf), Cole Burniston, TE, SO (Buf), Gabe Wallace, RG, SO (Buf), Deondre Doiron, OL, FR (Buf)
Pick: Buffalo

No. 13 Coastal Carolina (-13.5) at Troy
CanCon: Enock Makonzo, WLB, JR (CC), Wilt Gabe II, DE, SO (CC)
Pick: Coastal Carolina

Central Michigan at Toledo (-11)
CanCon: Mohamed Diallo, DE, SR (CMU), Cade Cote, DL, FR (CMU), Geri Theodore, DE, FR (Tol)
Pick: Toledo

No. 17 North Carolina at No. 10 Miami (-3)
CanCon: Patrice Rene, CB, SR (UNC)
Pick: North Carolina

Wisconsin (-2) at No. 16 Iowa
CanCon: Alaric Jackson, LT, SR (Iowa)
Pick: Iowa

Houston (-5) at Memphis
CanCon: Olivier Charles-Pierre, NT, SR (Hou)
Pick: Houston

Tennessee (-15.5) at Vanderbilt
CanCon: Josh Palmer, REC, SR (Tenn)
Pick: Tennessee

California (-2) at Washington State
CanCon: Henry Kimmins, DB, FR (WSU)
Pick: Washington State

Boise State (-11.5) at Wyoming
CanCon: Isaiah Bagnah, OLB, FR (BSt)
Pick: Boise State

LSU at No. 6 Florida (-23)
CanCon: Lamar Goods, DT, FR (Flo)
Pick: Florida

No. 22 Oklahoma State (-5.5) at Baylor
CanCon: Amen Ogbongbemiga, MLB, SR (OkSt), Chuba Hubbard, RB, JR (OkSt)
Pick: Oklahoma State

Louisiana Tech at TCU (-21.5)
CanCon: Gabe Siemieniec, PK, SR (LATech)
Pick: TCU

No. 15 USC (-2.5) at UCLA
CanCon: Kenny Mestidor, LB, FR (UCLA)
Pick: UCLA

Virginia at Virginia Tech (-3)
CanCon: Terrell Jana, REC, SR (Vir)
Pick: Virginia Tech

San Diego State at No. 18 BYU (-17.5)
CanCon: Daniel Okpoko, DT, SO (SDSU)
Pick: BYU

Fresno State (-12) at New Mexico
CanCon: Dontae Bull, LT, JR (FrSt), Alex Dumais, DT, SO (FrSt)
Pick: Fresno State

UNLV at Hawai’i (-20.5)
CanCon: Nick Mardner, REC, SO (HI)
Pick: Hawai’i

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.