Welcome to another football season, one that felt like it would never arrive. There’s really no good reason to think Wisconsin should win this game, but I appear to be in the minority with that line of thinking. Wisconsin was pretty poor last year and, unlike Penn State, I’d be hard-pressed to explain why they should be significantly improved this season. Yes, there is always uncertainty entering the first game, particularly on the road, so I can’t rule it out, however, this one feels pretty good for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State 31, Wisconsin 20
This is definitely a game that if it were later in the season or in Happy Valley I would feel much better about. Camp Randall is one of the toughest environments in the Big Ten, factor in this being the first game with full capacity in nearly two calendar years and Camp Randall should be rocking on Saturday afternoon. This will present a challenge to a group of Nittany Lions that feature key young contributors such as Curtis Jacobs, Caedan Wallace and Ji’Ayir Brown having either no reps at all, or at least no important reps in front of a hostile environment.
Additionally, Sean Clifford’s track record on the road against teams with a pulse is not good. That said, Cliff will be working with both the best offensive coordination and QB coach that he has in his career this season with Mike Yurcich now in the fold. Yurcich now being in charge of the Nittany Lion offense combined with the weapons around Clifford, as well as what should be the best offensive line of the Franklin Era, should be a reason for optimism.
Penn State’s defense, I believe, will be strong in 2021. That said, they are much better suited to defend a spread offense than a traditional power run team like Wisconsin. Especially with the questions along the defensive line that will need answered as the season progresses. Young defensive linemen such as Hakeem Beamon, D’Von Ellies, Nick Tarburton and Smith Vilbert need to grow up in a hurry on Saturday, or else it could be a long day for the Nittany Lions rush defense.
Top to bottom Penn State has a better, more talented roster than Wisconsin, but the game being week one in Madison combined with the question marks around Clifford are too much for me to overlook.
Wisconsin 24, Penn State 21
The vibes appear to be quite good around the program right now. James Franklin is cracking jokes. Jahan Dotson and Jordan Stout are raving about team chemistry. Young players are flashing at a number of positions. Alas, I am tired of finishing last in our season predictions and believe strongly in the concept of hedging. So today I am hedging against my emotions. The Badgers are always well-coached and have had much more stability. Camp Randall is a tough place to play, and Sean Clifford has a bad habit of giving the ball to the other team.
Wisconsin, 30, Penn State 27
I can’t tell you how much I’ve vacillated on this game. Back in January, coming of a 4-5 season, it was a definitive loss. Yurcich arrived, and almost every key contributor returned, and it became a win. Now as we arrive, I’m supremely torn.
As was mentioned, this whole season will live or die with Sean Clifford. His 2019 campaign was statistically one of the best Penn State has had, whereas 2020 was... not. I’d like to think that a lot of 2020 had to do with COVID, a new offense (in which he always seemed to be a square peg for a round hole), and a deflating week one loss. But his decision-making, accuracy, and mechanics all looked worse, which isn’t great.
If Sean Clifford comes even remotely close to his 2019 season, I think Penn State gets the win. I’m not sold on Wisconsin’s offense, and the Lions have a good amount of talent on the defensive line, even if it’s relatively inexperienced talent. I figure this will be a low scoring game - unless Clifford and Yurcich figure it out. If the Penn State offense gets rolling, I don’t think Wisconsin has the firepower to keep up. If.
Wisconsin 21, Penn State 20
Please please let me be wrong. I just don’t like opening up in Madison when it’s not clear what the offense (or defense, for that matter) will look like this season. If this was Week 3, or even Week 2, this score might be flipped, but Wisconsin has the home advantage, and the additional advantage of playing against an inconsistent quarterback.
Wisconsin 31, Penn State 28
It’s not that I don’t think Penn State can get out of Madison with the dub, I just simply don’t want to get my hopes up and get burned. I’ll believe that the “most confident QB in the country” has turned a corner, that there will be some semblance of a pass rush, and that the secondary won’t leak like a sieve when I see it.
Wisconsin 28, Penn State 24
(originally appearing in the Game Preview)
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.
Penn State 30, Wisconsin 27