EAST LANSING - Cal Haladay grew up an hour and a half from Penn State's Beaver Stadium. And Michigan State football's trip there will be a homecoming in many ways.
His brother and two sisters both went to school in Happy Valley. Their father, Greg, was an All-American heavyweight wrestler for the Nittany Lions from 1986-90. Together, they all saw plenty of football among the cacophonous 106,000-plus fans who religiously make the trek to the mountains of Central Pennsylvania.
Come Saturday, though, Haladay knows where his family's allegiances will be.
"They all wear the green, for sure," he said Tuesday, "because they support me through everything."
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Haladay and his teammates have been through plenty this fall. And they have one final chance to earn a bowl berth and extension into next month when the Spartans (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) close the regular season in a must-win upset situation at No. 10 Penn State. Kickoff Saturday is at 4 p.m. (FS1).
"We gotta go take care of business," said Haladay, a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week in the past three games. "And that's what we've been talking about - stay focused on Penn State. That's all that really matters right now."
That has been a challenge in recent weeks, with a glut of injuries on MSU's defensive line and suspensions to eight defensive players, including linebacker Jacoby Windmon. The depleted defense led Mel Tucker for the second straight season to suspend full-speed tackling during game week.
It was something Tucker picked up during his decade in the NFL, to help protect players' bodies in preparation for games.
"To not have the hitting, you're relying on the experience of guys that have done it before, to still be able to prepare," MSU's third-year coach said Monday. "And then when it's full speed on Sunday, be able to play at a high level. It's a little bit more challenging in college, but that's what we're doing. And I feel confident that we'll be able to improve."
Haladay went from playing special teams in the season-ending trip to Penn State during his redshirt year in 2020 to becoming a starting linebacker and freshman All-American last season. The Elysburg, Pennsylvania, native posted 96 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including a game-clincher against another home state foe Pitt in MSU's Peach Bowl victory to finish 11-2.
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Haladay said not hitting down the stretch last season is "really similar to this year," only there are far fewer bodies around because of the attrition and suspensions.
"I think we're still OK. It's late in the year, and everybody has been through a lot," said Haladay, who has started 21 of the past 23 games for MSU. "Our bodies at this point in the season are just beat up. It's a long season, and it's a tough sport. I mean, it's all physical. And we know that. And we know we can turn it on when we need to."
That benefitted Haladay at the end of last season, when had 11 tackles in each of those two games to close the season against the Nittany Lions and Panthers, at the time career highs. But he surpassed that in recent weeks as he saved his hitting for game days.
Haladay has double-digit tackle performances in six games this fall, setting a personal best three times - first with 12 against Minnesota, then with 13 at Michigan. The best, however, came without Windmon - who was playing at an All-Big Ten level before being suspended after the U-M game.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Haladay earned his first weekly conference honor after posting nine tackles, including 3.5 for a loss, in MSU's upset at Illinois. The next week, he repeated as the award winner after posting 19 tackles against Rutgers, the most by a conference player this season and the most by a Spartan since Eric Smith had 19 against Notre Dame in 2004.
Haladay has 60 tackles in MSU's past five games, and his 9.9 per game are tied for the Big Ten lead and rank 13th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. His 109 total tackles are tied for ninth in the FBS.
"You just gotta focus and take every rep for what it is and make sure you're doing everything perfect," Haladay said of practicing without tackling. "It is gonna be a little different. When we aren't able to go like full speed and not be able to hit, you have to make sure you fit everything up right, doing the little things perfect like techniques and fundamentals. Also (taking) mental reps, making sure that your mind is sharp. That's actually big, too. …
"It's late in the year, and everybody has been through a lot. Our bodies at this point in the season are just beat up. It's a long season, and it's a tough sport. I mean, it's all physical. And we know that. And we know we can turn it on when we need to."
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Next up: Nittany Lions
Matchup: Michigan State (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) at No. 10 Penn State (9-2, 6-2).
Kickoff: 4 p.m. Saturday; Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pennsylvania.
TV/radio: FS1; WJR-AM (760).
Line: Nittany Lions by 18.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Holiday homecoming for Michigan State football LB Cal Haladay at PSU