Penn State seeks its first conference championship since 2008 against a stingy Wisconsin Badgers squad.
(7) Penn State (10-2, 8-1) vs. (6)Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2)
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
The Betting Line: Penn State +2.5
TV: FOX- Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst), Shannon Spake (sideline)
Weather: In an affront to the football gods, the game will be played indoors so the weather will not be a factor. For those of you making the trip to Indianapolis, expect a chilly day with a high of 43 and low of 33, with no precipitation.
PENN STATE RECORD: 24-14, 3rd Year
OVERALL RECORD: 48-29, 6th Year
VS. WISCONSIN: First Meeting
WISCONSIN RECORD: 20-5, 2nd Year
OVERALL RECORD: 38-24, 5th Year
VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting
...NOW THE FUN PART
WISCONSIN OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE
The Badgers gameplan on offense should be fairly simple- line up and run the ball between the tackles, eating up clock and keeping the Nittany Lions offense on the sideline.
Wisconsin has one of the Big Ten’s best running backs in Corey Clement, a bruising runner with 1,140 yards on the season on 271 carries (4.2 yards per rush) and 13 touchdowns. he has the ability to wear down a defense, and could be very dangerous in the second half if Penn State struggles to move the ball and keeps its defense on the field. Senior Dare Ogunbowale is also a tough runner who can also take control of a defense. Recently, he rushed for 120 yards against Nebraska and 103 against Illinois, but has seen his role decrease the last two weeks, gaining just five yards on six carries against Purdue and Minnesota. Freshman Bradick Shaw gives the Badgers a third big, physical back who will also receive carries on Saturday.
Starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook is questionable for Saturday after suffering a concussion in the Badgers’ regular season finale against Minnesota. If he isn’t cleared for action, the Badgers will turn to senior Bart Houston, who has seen plenty of action as part of a two-quarterback system. Houston has played in nine games on the season, connecting on 69 of 108 attempts for 912 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions. At 6-4 and 235 lbs., Houston is considered a dual-threat quarterback, while Hornibrook is a more traditional dropback passer who has 0 or negative rushing yards in 10 of 11 games played.
The Badgers leading receiver is Jazz Peavy, a lanky target who uses his speed to find holes in the defense. At 6-6 and 248 lbs., Badgers tight end Tony Fumageli uses his size to create mismatches and does an excellent job of keeping the chains moving on third downs, and is also a danger to pick up chunks of yardage after the catch.
Penn State will likely operate a base defense on Saturday that focuses to stop the Badgers run game, and limit blitzes to obvious passing downs. It will be extremely important to force several three-and-outs throughout the game to get off the field and limit the impact of the Badgers physical ground game.
WISCONSIN DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE
Wisconsin has the nation’s best defense out of any team that doesn’t reside in Tuscaloosa. While the Penn State offense has been extremely explosive during the second half of the season, moving the ball will be a major chore throughout Saturday’s contest. The Badgers are allowing just 13.7 points per game, and give up only 292 yards per contest on the season, and have the nation’s third-best run defense.
The biggest question mark for Penn State heading into the game is the health of Saquon Barkley, who limped off the field in the third quarter against Michigan State and was held out for the remainder of the game. With Wisconsin’s penchant for stopping the run, the Nittany Lions will need Barkley’s breakaway threat to create a few big plays in what could become a low-scoring affair, as well as to help open up the entire offense. Regardless of Barkley’s status, Andre Robinson seems likely to play an expanded role. His physical running style could help the Nittany Lions keep the chains moving against a very talented front seven. It may be wise for the Nittany Lions to keep attacking the Badgers front seven with a fresh back, so Miles Sanders and Mark Allen could also get involved.
Penn State’s young offensive line will have their work cut out for them. While they have done an outstanding job with pass protection as of late, they will face several disruptive playmakers in the trenches. Linebacker T.J. Watt is especially dangerous, racking up 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks on the season. The Badgers swarming defense know how to force quarterbacks into making poor decisions. Wisconsin has four different defenders with three or more interceptions this season, with safety Leo Musser leading the way with five. Fortunately, quarterback Trace McSorley knows how to protect the ball, throwing just two interceptions in the past eight games. His notable pocket presence will need to be on full display, as he will likely find himself under heavy pressure on a regular basis.
The key match-up for the game could be Penn State’s receivers against Wisconsin’s secondary. Both are outstanding units, and the Nittany Lions height at receiver could help provide mismatches, or at least jump ball opportunities, against a talented secondary. Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, Irvin Charles and tight end Mike Gesicki will be called upon to make plays downfield by using their size and athleticism. Gesicki especially has proven to be a handful as of late, and could be the X-factor for the Nittany Lions offense. The receiving corps have failed to get separation at times this season, and failure in this regard on Saturday could spell doom for Penn State.
Wisconsin kicker Andrew Endicott is 11 of 16 on field goals for the season with a long of 46. Punter Anthony Lotti is averaging 37.7 yards per punt on the season with a long of 60. He’s been somewhat inconsistent throughout his freshman season, and a shanked punt or two could give Penn State a major advantage in a game that could become a battle for field position.
Penn State’s special teams have been the unsung heroes of the team’s remarkable turnaround, and will need to come up big on Saturday. Freshman punter Blake Gilliken could see plenty of action thanks the Badgers stingy defense, and it will be crucial he comes up big yet again to give Penn State an advantage with field position. Kicker Tyler Davis has been among the best in the nation, and could be the difference in a game where points could be at a premium, especially if the Nittany Lions need to settle for multiple field goals. Gillikin and Davis have both performed well in horrid conditions, and should really shine playing indoors where weather will have no impact.
John Reid and Miles Sanders have shown their big-play ability in the return game, which could also make the difference in a game that seems destined to come down to field position and a deciding big play in the fourth quarter.
Penn State-23 , Wisconsin-20
This is going to be a tough match-up, but by now I’ve learned not to doubt this Penn State team. While Wisconsin’s incredibly tough defense will likely neutralize Penn State’s explosive offense, the Nittany Lions have proven to be strong in all three areas of the game during their eight-game winning streak. This could be the difference in the game on Saturday that helps earn Penn State an unlikely Big Ten crown.
Penn State is an incredibly young team, and teams with their make-up can oftentimes get caught up in the gravity of the moment that come with such a huge game. But Penn State’s focus and resolve have been unflappable during the past eight games, and I don’t see that changing on Saturday, even when you consider the enormity of this contest.
Trace McSorley gets the job done by tossing for 215 yards and two touchdowns, which go to Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki. Gesicki also comes up with a big catch late in the fourth quarter to set up a game-winning field goal by first-team All-Big Ten honoree Tyler Davis. The defense seals the deal in the closing moments thanks in large part by negative hits by Curtis Cothran and Evan Schwan, and a huge fourth down pass deflection by John Reid.
Let’s make it happen, Lions!