STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — R.J. Shelton’s one-handed grab off a squib kick led to his right arm raised in triumph in the end zone.
Shelton needed all of 14 seconds to douse the enthusiasm of the emotional senior day festivities at Beaver Stadium when he returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. His next return should come on a larger stage — Michigan State again proved its good enough to land a New Year’s Bowl invitation.
Jeremy Langford ran for 118 yards and two scores to help the 10th-ranked Spartans warm up for a bowl game with a 34-10 win over Penn State 34-10 on Saturday night.
The Spartans (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten, No. 10 CFP) won their third straight game and hit the double-digit win mark for the fourth time in the last five seasons under coach Mark Dantonio.
Up next, a likely spot in one of the six Jan. 1 bowl games.
“I don’t think there’s any question we’ll be chosen,” Dantonio said. “With Georgia losing. With UCLA losing. We’re up there in the top 10, for sure. That should get us to one of those bowls. That was our goal. When we had to bounce back, that was our goal.”
After Shelton’s opening burst, the Spartans never really dazzled against the Nittany Lions (6-6, 2-6). Connor Cook threw a 10-yard TD pass and Langford chipped in with a 3-yard score in the third quarter to methodically put it away.
The Nittany Lions honored the 17 seniors who weathered four coaches, the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the resulting NCAA sanctions. The NCAA lifted the bowl ban this season and the Nittany Lions await their destination. The Nittany Lions will be allowed their full complement of football scholarships in 2015.
Under first-year coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions finished 2-6 after a 4-0 start and seem far removed from becoming a conference-title contending team like the Spartans.
“They have more scholarships than we do,” Franklin said. “We’re going to have an opportunity to get that back. We’ll work with those things. That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to close the gap by developing the players that we have. But there’s a difference right now.”
Christian Hackenberg, the quarterback predicted for NFL stardom under former coach Bill O’Brien, has sputtered on Franklin’s watch. He has been sacked over 40 times behind an oft-maligned offensive line and threw 15 interceptions, the kind of numbers that sour scouts and leave a program languishing in the middle of the conference.
Hackenberg denied speculation his unhappiness with the offense had him interested in transferring.
“It’s where I’m at. It’s where I want to be,” he said. “It’s the team that I love, the guys that I love, the university that I love to be at. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”
The seniors received a special pregame salute for their mettle in the wake of the sanctions and playing for former coaches Joe Paterno, Tom Bradley and O’Brien.
But before parents even had time to dab their eyes, Shelton easily handled a botched kick and zipped into the end zone for the score
Michael Geiger kicked field goals of 36 and 39 yards in the first quarter for a 13-0 lead.
Sam Ficken set a Penn State single-season record with 23 field goals with his 41-yarder late in the half that made it 13-3.
Hackenberg twice blew chances in the quarter to make the game more competitive. He just overthrew Eugene Lewis on a corner route shy of the end zone and his final pass attempt of the half was bobbled by Chris Goodwin in the end zone and intercepted by Trae Waynes.
The Spartans kept up the pressure against Hackenberg in the third, forcing a fumble off a sack. Michigan State recovered at Penn State’s 18 and needed only four plays for Cook, who has guided the Spartans to three single-season offensive records for most points, most offensive TDs and most yards in a season, to hit Tony Lippett for a 10-yard TD and a 27-3 lead.
That score sent a good chunk of what was left of the announced crowd of 99,902 fans headed toward the exits.
“It was big atmosphere, a big-time game for us to capitalize on. We did that,” Cook said. “Hopefully that will put us in a good bowl, one of those top six bowls.”
Penn State’s Akeel Lynch had an 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth.
Langford put the finishing touches on the blowout with a 6-yard TD run that made it 34-10 and pushed him over the 100-yard rushing mark for the ninth straight game.
The Nittany Lions will hold a team meeting Sunday and start their bowl game preparation.
“It does help in that locker room a little bit the fact that it’s not completely over,” Franklin said.