Penn State plays its final game of the season Saturday, and hopes to prevail in what will surely be an emotional affair against a Wisconsin team that's already clinched the Leaders division that was handed to them, preseason, on a silver blatter..
So, as always, we reached out to the foremost authority on the Lions' opposition, and our friends at Bucky's 5th Quarterare just that. Thanks to Mike Fiammetta. for lending a helping hand in enlightening us about Penn State's opposition. So thanks a ton, gang, and remember to check out Bucky's 5th Quarter to keep up to date on the Badgers; and be sure to check out what I had to say when they put me on the hot seat.
Black Shoe Diaries: Wisconsin could not have started off this season more slowly, but they've looked much better in Big Ten play.What's been the key to that turnaround?
Bucky's 5th Quarter: Considering how it doesn’t totally make sense -- Saturday’s starting quarterback, redshirt senior Curt Phillips, will be making just his third career start and that says a lot -- I would venture time is simply the biggest key. The first few weeks of the season saw a road loss to Oregon State (not so bad, in hindsight), the subsequent firing of first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson (feels like forever ago now) and all-around offensive ineptitude (for the most part, that has subsided). Somehow, Wisconsin’s offense has done just enough to put it in the Big Ten Championship Game despite a pretty busy carousel at quarterback. The defense has been solidly bend-but-don’t-break, cliché or not, and I’d say it’s kept things steadier than they otherwise could’ve been.
BSD: Ever since Joel Stave went down, it seems like the Badgers have tried to avoid throwing the ball as much as possible. Penn State's secondary is the weakest unit on the team--do you think Wisconsin will look to take advantage?
B5Q: Wisconsin fans certainly hope so. First-year Matt Canada hasn’t entirely won over the fan base, to say the least, and the Badgers are coming off a game that featured some polarizing play-calling. In my opinion, the calls were decent, save for the draw to Montee Ball that was called on 1st-and-10 after a riveting 4th-down conversion and with just about a minute remaining in a game UW trailed, 14-7.
After limiting Phillips to seven pass attempts against Indiana -- he completed four, and probably didn’t need anymore thanks to UW’s school-record 564 rushing yards -- the coaches took off the reigns a bit against Ohio State. Phillips went 14-of-25 for 154 yards and the game-tying touchdown with eight seconds left. All that considered, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of the same, 25-30 attempts, vs. Penn State.
BSD: With Penn State and Ohio State ineligible, it was basically a foregone conclusion that Wisconsin would win the Leaders division. So what, then, would make this a successful season in the eyes of the Badger faithful?
B5Q: The preseason expectation was a return trip to the Rose Bowl and hopefully a win there, obviously. The minimum was a win in the Big Ten Championship Game, and that now seems a little more difficult. Not that I’d predict a loss against Michigan or Nebraska, but this season clearly hasn’t transpired as planned.
Given that -- and perhaps some fans would disagree -- I’d say a successful season would be getting to the Rose Bowl, with the first win there in three years a wildly awesome bonus.
BSD: Montee Ball has, once again, put up simply ridiculous numbers. What makes him so good, and how does Wisconsin produce so many dominant running backs?
B5Q: Many things make Montee Ball so good, but I’d say the three most significant traits are his vision, ability to gain yards after contact and cut-back capability. Obviously, as the all-time NCAA co-leader with 78 touchdowns, his nose for the end-zone is pretty solid, as well. Fans will also miss his humble, good-guy persona, and next thing you know, this short answer turns into an essay.
Much of the Badgers’ success with running backs is credited to the offensive line, which almost always is among the nation’s best. The running backs are also coached incredibly well, and I think Ball’s development highlights that. Despite his status as the all-time leading rusher in Missouri high school football, Ball was relatively unheralded coming into Madison. Ahead of him, he had P.J. Hill and John Clay, one former Big Ten Freshman of the Year and another conference offensive player of the year. Throw in the simultaneous emergence of James White behind him, and it’s amazing how much competition Ball faced throughout his time in Madison. Nevertheless, he saw his yardage jump each year -- 391 to 996, 1,923 and currently 1,417 (in three fewer games than 2011) -- and the touchdown totals soar, as well.
BSD: Last week, the Badger D held Braxton Miller in check--to just 98 yards passing and 47 rushing. How good is Wisconsin's defense, and how do they match up with the Penn State offense?
B5Q: As I mentioned above, I think Wisconsin’s defense is best characterized as a mostly solid one and that might bend, but doesn’t usually break. The numbers are pretty good -- second in the Big Ten in both scoring defense (17.5 points allowed per game) and total defense (302.9 yards allowed per game) -- and most important would be the 3rd-down defense. The Badgers allow opponents to convert 3rd downs just 30.9 percent of the time, the third-best mark in the conference.
BSD: How do you see this game shaping up?
B5Q: Bret Bielema has said he will not be resting any players for the Big Ten Championship Game, and assuming that is indeed the case, I see Wisconsin taking this one relatively easily. I’ll say 24-17, Wisconsin.
Thanks again, Mike, and be sure to check out Bucky's 5th Quarter.