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No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin: Game Preview

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Let’s kickoff the 2021 season with a bang.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Both teams look to bounce back from disappointing seasons in an early showdown between ranked teams.

Penn State (0-0) vs. Wisconsin (0-0)

Kickoff: Noon, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI

The Betting Line: Penn State +5.5

TV: FOX - Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst), Jenny Taft (sideline)

Weather: Highs around 70 with cloudy skies and chances of scattered thunderstorms early in the day.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 60-28, 8th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 84-43, 11th Year

VS. WISCONSIN: 2-0

Paul Chryst:

WISCONSIN RECORD: 56-19, 7th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 75-38, 10th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 0-2

FUN FACTS

WISCONSIN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Let’s start with the running game, since this is Wisconsin after all. Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi got the nod as the starting running back, following the footsteps of many standouts during the past few decades. The four-star prospect has played sparingly for the Tigers the last two seasons, and rushed for 151 yards on 27 carries with three touchdowns in 2020. The Badgers leading returning rusher Jalen Berger will also be in the mix throughout the afternoon.

Wisconsin’s offensive line was not as dominant as we’ve come to expect, and will look to get back to its regular standing as one of the best offensive lines in college football on an annual basis. They also struggled in pass protection, allowing two or more sacks in four of seven games. Penn State will be breaking in several new faces along the defensive line, so this will be an excellent test for both units.

Graham Mertz returns at quarterback after having a tale of two seasons in his first year as the starter. Mertz had one of the best single-games in Big Ten history right off the bat, completing 20 of 21 attempts with five touchdowns and no interceptions against Illinois. After a 49-11 whooping of Michigan, Mertz looked to be a future star with a 75% completion rate, and a 7-0 touchdown:intercerption ratio. Then things suddenly became more difficult. Metz tossed just two more touchdown passes in the remaining six games, and was picked off five times. Like the offensive line, he’ll also be looking to bounce back and prove his initial success wasn’t just by catching defensive coordinators off guard.

Mertz will be aided by an experience group of passcatchers though. Tight end Jake Ferguson is back after leading the team with 30 catches in 2020, which included four touchdowns for one of the Big Ten’s premier red zone threats. Senior Danny Davis III has worked his way into a starting spot, while Jack Dunn and Chimere Dike are back after combining for 40 receptions for 444 yards last season.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. WISCONSIN DEFENSE

Wisconsin boasted one of the nation’s stingiest defenses in 2020, ranking 5th is yardage allowed per game and ninth in scoring defense. Expectations will be high this fall as many starters are set to return.

The Badgers return standouts on all three levels, and will make Penn State’s offense earn their yardage. Inside linebacker Jack Sanborn is back after leading the team with 52 tackles, including 4.0 TFLs. His counterpart in the 3-4 scheme, Leo Chenal, returns as the team’s sack leader in 2020. Outside linebacker Nick Herbig also returns after leading the Badgers with 6.0 TFLs. If you haven’t caught on, Wisconsin will boast one of the nation’s top linebacker units this fall.

Safety Colin Wilder is one of the top all-around defensive backs in the Big Ten and does an outstanding job in run support. Scott Nelson starts opposite of Wilder, and is standout in his own right, contributing two interceptions and 4.0 TFLs last season. Simply put, the Badgers defense is littered with experience and talent and will be among the best units the Nittany Lions face all season.

However, Penn State returns plenty of talent as well - nine starters will be back, as well as many regular contributors who will be a year improved. Most notable is the explosive Jahan Dotson, who reached a totally new level in 2020 as he became a human highlight machine as the MVP of the offense. Parker Washington will be starting opposite Dotson, and has huge potential after a breakout season as a true freshman - which he put together without an offseason with his new team.

The running back position is stacked, and Noah Cain will be back after missing nearly all of the 2020 campaign. Penn State also returns tight end Brenton Strange, who came on strong after replacing an injured Pat Freiermuth. There is also plenty of hype surrounding his backup Theo Johnson, who boasts exceptional athleticism and should see plenty of time on the field as well.

Sean Clifford is back for his third year as a starter. While 2020 was an up-and-down year for Clifford, he will be looking to bounce back under new offensive coordinator and “quarterback whisperer” Mike Yurcich. He will also be behind a veteran offensive line.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Wisconsin kicker Collin Larsh is automatic from close range but has struggled with longer attempts. He connected on five of seven attempts in 2020, missing both attempts beyond 40 yards. In 2019 he was two of four from 40-49 yards, and missed his only 50-yard attempt. His career long is 44 yards. Punter Andy Vujnovich averaged 41.7 yards per punt in 2020, and did not have a touchback in 34 attempts.

Penn State returns most of its key special teams members. Jake Pinegar is back for his fourth year as the starting kicker, but may get pushed by true freshman Sander Sahaydak who is the top kicker in the incoming class. Jordan Stout also returns as the punter after averaging 41.5 yards per punt in his first year in the role. He’ll also serve as the kickoff specialist, where he regularly blasts the ball out of the end zone.

We will need to wait until Saturday to find out who will be the return men for the Nittany Lions, as no official depth chart was released heading in to the season. All signs point to Jahan Dotson as the team’s punt returner, giving Penn State one of the most explosive returners in the nation.

PREDICTION

Penn State-30, Wisconsin-27

It’s always difficult to make a reasonable prediction for early-season games, but this one is even more so. Both teams have the talent to be ranked in the top 10 by season’s end. They are both trying to answer some key questions to bounce back from disappointing seasons as well.

The key to this game will be Penn State’s offense vs. Wisconsin’s defense. The Nittany Lions have the returning talent to be exceptional on offense this year. The Badgers defense can already be assumed to be exceptional this year. Clifford will need a steady game with limited mistakes. If Penn State plays smart, Dotson, Parker Washington, and company can make plays on the perimeter while the offensive line help pave the way for the stable of talented backs to keep the chains moving. If the Nittany Lions don’t come out sharp, the Badgers defense will have no problem shutting them down. The more points the better for Penn State, while a low-scoring affair will certainly favor the Badgers.

The other key will be Penn State’s defensive line against the Wisconsin run game. Surprisingly, neither is guaranteed to be a strength like in typical years. The Nittany Lions will be depending on several newcomers, while the Badgers had a disappointing ground game in 2020, only rushing for 200 yards in one game.

We will learn quite a bit in week one this year, but for now, I’m sticking with the good guys. Dotson rises to the occasion with two touchdown receptions, including one in the fourth quarter that sends Penn State fans everywhere into a frenzy. Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee each churn out 75 yards, with Cain getting his first score since 2019. Brandon Smith is the MVP of the defense for the day, with a sack and 12 tackles, while newcomer Arnold Ebiketie chips in a sack, three TFLs and a forced fumble.

Let’s do this.