Playing spoiler: Penn State has a lot to prove against No. 5 Michigan State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Troy Reeder knows his team still has a lot to prove. There’s no way around that.

The Nittany Lions haven’t beaten a top-25 team in two seasons. They haven’t even beaten a winning Power 5 team this season. In fact, their top win this year might have come against San Diego State.

With No. 5 Michigan State on the slate for Saturday, and with a spot in the Big Ten championship on the line for the Spartans, this is the final opportunity for Penn State to make a B1G statement. And that wasn’t lost on Reeder.

“In terms of what we want to prove, it’s just that a lot of teams question -- a lot of people out there question -- how high of a level are we capable of playing at?” he said. “And I think we’ve done a good job of hanging in some tight games. But it’s time that we, like you said, knock off a [winning] Power 5 team.”

Penn State will have more supporters than usual for its 3:30 p.m. kickoff. If Michigan State loses, that means the winner of Ohio State-Michigan -- which takes place at noon -- advances to the Big Ten title game. That’s led to interesting sights like this already:

“Obviously, this is a really big game for a lot of teams, not even just for us,” defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. “So I want to win this game really bad -- not even just to be the spoiler of their season but to make” the seniors happy.

Most players didn’t seem to care much about playing the role of spoiler. But that’s because the importance of this game is already magnified for the Nittany Lions. Head coach James Franklin admitted Tuesday that this team isn’t where he wanted it to be, and it’s difficult to define this season in any way other than underachieving.

A win Saturday can flip that season-long storyline. Instead of focusing on the mistakes, there’d be some tangible evidence of a turnaround. But, right now, it’s difficult to ignore all the miscues piling on top of one another: how defenders missed nearly 10 tackles in just the first half against Michigan, how special teams have struggled mightily all season, how the offensive line has shown limited progress and allowed the fifth-most sacks in the nation, etc.

These Nittany Lions don’t need any further “spoiler” motivation in knocking off a top-5 team. Even if Franklin continually insists he doesn’t believe in signature wins -- he’s 0-18 against end-of-season top-25 teams as a head coach -- it’d be difficult to label one against the mighty Spartans as anything else.

“Can I sit here and tell you that if we walk out of that stadium victorious that we’re not going to have a heightened sense of ‘That was amazing’ and heightened sense of momentum during the bowl game?” asked offensive lineman Andrew Nelson. “No, that’s absolutely the case. But we’re not really looking at this game as, 'Let’s spoil this for Michigan State.'"

Michigan State is fighting for a Big Ten championship and a spot in the playoff; Penn State is maybe battling for a berth in the National University Holiday Bowl instead of the Foster Farms Bowl. A win here won’t change the outcome of the season for the Nittany Lions. But Penn State is after something almost as important: Respect.

“We have everything to prove,” safety Marcus Allen said. “That we’re still fighting, that we’re not going to give up, that we’re going to play to the best of our ability against any team.”