Michigan State, Penn State work to overcome mounting injuries, ailments
East Lansing — By the time Michigan State and Penn State take the field Saturday afternoon, it will be interesting to see who is actually available.
Heading into the final week of the season, neither team is what could be described as healthy. The Spartans have been digging into the depth chart for the better part of the last few weeks, while the Nittany Lions are coming off a game last week where they were short 35 players, 21 of them because of the flu.
“Where we're at right now, as you know, we had massive numbers on Saturday with 35 guys,” Penn State coach James Franklin said this week. “Most of those guys are coming out of it and in a pretty good place. As you can imagine, we've had a few more kind of go into it with the flu. It's a little bit of a moving target.
“Again, those 35 guys that had it, we've looked at this thing, it's been typically about three days. So, most of them are either through it or coming out of it, but there has been a few more over the last couple days that have got it kind of late in this cycle.”
The most notable player to be battling illness is quarterback Sean Clifford. The fifth-year senior attempted to play in last week’s victory over Rutgers, but failed to make it through the first quarter, giving way to freshman Christian Veilleux, who threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns in his debut.
“Sean wasn't feeling great on Sunday, was feeling better on Monday, is feeling back to normal today,” Franklin said Tuesday.
So it appears the Nittany Lions will get Clifford back, an important development for any team getting ready to take on a pass defense that ranks last in the nation and is coming off a game it got run over from beginning to end in a one-sided loss at Ohio State.
Clifford, among the career leaders at Penn State in nearly every passing category, has thrown for 2,599 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions this season and will, no doubt, be looking to get rolling again when he faces the Spartans’ defense, a unit that is allowing 339.9 yards a game.
And there was little doubt by the middle of the week Clifford would be under center for the Nittany Lions (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten).
“We'll go back to the rotation that we have had,” Franklin said of the quarterback reps in practice. “Obviously, it's a good feeling knowing that you have a guy (as a backup) that you feel has played and played at a high level in actual game reps, which is something we hadn't had up till that point.”
Regardless of who takes the field for Penn State, Franklin reminded everyone about the reality of what it’s like 12 weeks into the season.
“I think this time of the year, everybody is banged up, as you can imagine,” he said. “Some are healthier than others. I think once we get through this last bit of the flu, knock on wood, I think we could be as healthy as we've been in a couple weeks, which would be great.”
While it hasn’t exactly been the flu, the Spartans (9-2, 6-2) could be exploring the depth chart plenty this week as they look to rebound from the loss at Ohio State in an effort to reach 10 victories and put themselves in position to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Both sides of the ball have been dealt their share of blows, as the receiving tandem of Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are both ailing. Nailor (hand) has missed the last three games, but continues to practice while Reed sat out the second half last week after injuring his foot, spending the final 30 minutes in Columbus watching the game from the sidelines in a walking boot.
Running back Kenneth Walker III also was limited to just five carries on a sore ankle while the offensive line is down tackle Jarrett Horst and guard Matt Carrick.
On the defensive side, the Spartans likely will be without defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, who hasn’t played since the Purdue game and could miss the rest of the season while cornerback Charles Brantley is also likely done for the year. Even those playing aren’t 100% as linebacker Quavaris Crouch played at Ohio State with a brace on his right knee and defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley have been fighting through ailments all season.
“You work hard to get back, and it's really that simple,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “And it does matter who's playing, obviously. It’s a human-performance business, and so we need some guys to step up. It’s next man up and get the job done. We need to play complementary football and when guys are out, you have actually less margin of error.
“So we have to play better and make less mistakes. Our execution has to be very, very sharp. We have to execute at a very, very high level on offense, defense and special teams for the entire ball game. That's what it takes.
Odds are Walker plays Saturday, even with the Heisman Trophy likely out of reach. As for Nailor and Reed, it’s tough to decipher as Tucker offers very little in terms of injury information. With them out, expect a bigger role for sophomore Tre Mosley and freshman Keon Coleman, who had his first career touchdown last week.
“Injuries happen throughout the course of the season,” said Mosley, who scored twice against Purdue. “Having a good receiver room is important because guys are able to step up. Young guys like Montorie Foster and Keon Coleman, guys are stepping in and helping out as much as they are needed to. So just to have a guy have confidence enough to step in and fill those shoes … like it’s hard to replace a guy like Jayden Reed or Jalen Nailor with one person. But if we do it as a group it’s no problem.”