Penn State tries to bounce back in its penultimate home game of the season following a brutal loss to Michigan.
(#20)Penn State (6-3, 3-3) vs. Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2)
Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
The Betting Line: Penn State -9
TV: ESPN- Mark Jones (play-by-play), Duffy Dvoracek (analyst), Molly McGrath (sideline)
Weather: Cold but dry, with temps hovering around freezing at kickoff with a high of just 35.
PENN STATE RECORD: 42-20, 5th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 66-35, 8th Year
VS. WISCONSIN: 1-0
WISCONSIN RECORD: 40-10, 4th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 59-30, 7th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 0-1
NOW THE FUN PART....
WISCONSIN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
This is Wisconsin, which naturally means the offense centers around a stud running back churning out yards behind a massive offensive line. This year is no different, as the Badgers boast the nation’s leading rusher in Jonathan Taylor. The sophomore was a preseason Heisman favorite, but has seen his candidacy drop off with a lack of national attention to Madison as the Badgers have fallen out of the polls following three losses. It certainly doesn’t mean that Taylor isn’t one of the nation’s best players, however.
Taylor is a patient runner who can also be gone in a flash when he sees a lane. He has the size and durability to be a workhorse back and wear down a defense throughout the afternoon. In nine games, Taylor has racked up 1,363 yards and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. He’s also reached the end zone 11 times, and is coming off a 208 yards performance with three scores against Rutgers. Taylor isn’t used in the passing attack often, but does has seven receptions for 52 yards on the year.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is an experienced and efficient leader for the Badgers offense, but is listed as questionable as he continues to deal with concussion symptoms from the Oct. 20 game against Illinois. He missed the following game against Northwestern, only to return and then be forced out of action against Rutgers on Saturday.
If Hornibrook is unavailable on Saturday, sophomore Jack Coan will be ready to start in his place. Coan performed well in his only start of the season, completing 20 of 31 passes for 158 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions against a tough Northwestern defense. He was five of seven for 64 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in limited action against Rutgers on Saturday.
Both quarterbacks are able to take advantage of Penn State’s lapses in coverage in the short passing game, and find ways to dink-and-dunk down the field. Stopping the Badgers on third downs will be absolutely crucial as Wisconsin has the ability to extend drives and wear down a defense.
Hornibrook and Coan also have several options at receiver who each demand attention. Tight end Jake Ferguson is good for a few big catches a game, and leads the team with 25. Receiver A.J. Taylor is right behind him with 24, and is more of a big-play threat, averaging 17 yards per catch with three touchdowns on the season. Sophomore Danny Davis III is another frequent target, and has seen his productivity increase during the last few weeks as he continues to emerge as the Badgers top receiver.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. WISCONSIN DEFENSE
There’s both good and bad news for Penn State when looking at the Badgers defense. The 2018 unit isn’t nearly as dominant as some of the stingy defenses we’ve seen come out of Madison recently. However, they are still formidable enough to slow down a sluggish Penn State offense.
While the Badgers typically have one of the top run defenses in the nation, they are merely middle-of-the-pack by allowing just under 160 yards per game. The pass defense is slightly better, coming in at 30th nationally by yielding 193 yards per contest.
Leading the way for Wisconsin is Ryan Connelly, a jack-of-all-trades at inside linebacker. The senior is rarely out of position, and leads the defense with 65 tackles. He is also has the speed to get in the backfield in a hurry, collecting seven TFLs and two sacks this year. The Badgers have another playmaking senior at the other inside linebacker spot, as T.J. Edwards leads the team with 8.5 TFLs, three sacks and two interceptions. Both Connelly and Edwards, along with junior outside linebacker Zack Baun, are used in a variety of ways in the Badgers 3-4 defense to create confusion and get after the quarterback on passing downs. Penn State’s offensive line will need to communicate and play smart to keep Trace McSorley and/or Tommy Stevens upright.
Speaking of which, there’s a chance Stevens could be seeing more time under center on Saturday. They don’t come much tougher than McSorley, but he is clearly being hindered by a couple nagging injuries. A healthy Stevens likely gives Penn State it’s best chance to move the ball, and will give him valuable experience as he looks to lead the offense in 2019.
Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone is accurate from within 40, nailing seven of eight attempts in that range on the year. He does struggle from deep, hitting only one of his three attempts beyond 40 yards. The Badgers have also struggled in the punting game. Junior Connor Allen took over duties in week nine, but is averaging 37 yards per punt with a long of 44. This should give Penn State an advantage in the field position battle, as Blake Gillikin is coming off one of his best games of the season during a busy afternoon in Ann Arbor where he averaged 46.3 yards per punt and blasted a career-high 74-yarder.
True freshman kicker Jake Pinegar has started to turn the corner by hitting his last six field goal attempts after a rocky start, but did not have a field goal try at Michigan.
The Badgers do not have a necessarily explosive return game. Wide receiver Jack Dunn is steady as a punt returner, averaging 9.9 yards per return with a long of 15. Freshman receiver Aron Cruichshank is averaging just under 20 yards on kickoff returns with a season-long of 34.
Penn State-24, Wisconsin-20
The parallels between these two teams is unmistakable. Both teams find themselves at 6-3 after once appearing in the top 10 with expectations of a potential Big Ten Championship and playoff run. Both teams have struggled to find an identity- while Penn State’s high-flying offense has come down to earth, Wisconsin’s typically stout defense has become leaky. Now both look to finish strong despite injury issues for their experienced quarterbacks.
All of this makes this matchup hard to predict, as it seems any outcome is plausible. This could just come down to which team comes out the most motivated. With a win, either team is in good standing to finish at 9-3 and go to a quality bowl- but is that enough considering the heights these teams have reached in recent years?
This seems destined to be a low-scoring affair, so the smart thing would be to pick Wisconsin due to its strong run game giving it more consistent offense. However, something tells me the Nittany Lions do just enough to pull this one out at home.
Amani Oruwariye comes through with a game-sealing interception, while Micah Parsons has his best game yet with 11 tackles and a sack. Miles Sanders helps the cause with 90 yards rushing and a score, while Jahan Dotson leads the way with six catches and his first touchdown.