Penn State/Wisconsin preview

For the fourth time in the six-year history of the Big Ten Championship game, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers will be their division’s representative. Last time Wisconsin was in Indianapolis, the Badgers were blown out 59-0 by Ohio State in 2014. This is the first time No. 7 Penn State has made it to the conference championship game. This will be a matchup of strength vs. strength, as the Nittany Lions are 25th in the country in scoring at 36.6 points per game, while the Badgers are third in the country in scoring defense at 13.7 points allowed per game. The last time these two teams met was at Camp Randall Stadium in 2013 when Penn State came out of Madison with a 31-24 win, spoiling Wisconsin’s Senior Day. The Nittany Lions and Badgers come in with identical 10-2 records, but Penn State was 8-1 in conference, whereas Wisconsin was 7-2. The Lions were tied with Ohio State at 8-1 in the Big Ten, but Penn State won the meeting in Happy Valley in October to earn the trip to Indianapolis. Penn State was dominant at Beaver Stadium, but was just 3-2 away from Happy Valley. The winner may still have a chance to make the College Football Playoff. This should be a great game for the Big Ten title.

When Wisconsin runs the ball...

The Badgers had another 200+-yard performance against Minnesota, but Corey Clement was held to 100 yards on 26 carries for a 3.8-yard average. The running back trio of Clement, Bradrick Shaw and Dare Ogunbowale combine to average just 3.4 yards per carry. However, wide receiver Jazz Peavy took a jet sweep 71 yards to set up the eventual game-winning touchdown. That carry inflated the rushing statistic, but Minnesota has a very good front four. Bucky checks in at No. 44 in rush yards per game, but is No. 85 in rushing average. Wisconsin is much-improved in that area since the bye week. Penn State is solid at stopping the run, also coming in at No. 44. The Lions have not allowed a team to run for more than four yards per carry since Ohio State six games ago, and even then Curtis Samuel ran for a 74-yard touchdown to make the rushing stats look better. Wisconsin’s running back trio and the offensive line need to play well against a solid front seven for Penn State. Peavy has had success on jet sweeps, like against Minnesota, so he will he will need to make a play or two on the ground to soften up the edge of the Lions defense.

Edge: Push

When Wisconsin passes the ball...

The quarterbacks have both played well the past four games, even though Wisconsin’s wide receivers have not helped them out much recently. In the said four games, the quarterbacks have a 64 percent completion percentage and four touchdowns and most importantly, no turnovers. As a team, Wisconsin is 106th in the country in pass yards per game. However, the Badgers are No. 68 in quarterback rating. It is not great, but it is not terrible either. Penn State is No. 30 in pass yards allowed per game and has sacked opposing quarterbacks 37 times, which is tied for 12th in the country. This will be a challenge for the Wisconsin offensive line and passing attack. The big guys up front held their own last week against the ferocious pass rush of Minnesota, only allowing one sack. The Nittany Lions have a good defense, so the receivers will have to come to play and catch the ball when called upon.

Edge: Penn State

When Penn State runs the ball...

Saquan Barkley is the best running back in the Big Ten, but rolled his ankle in the victory over Michigan State last week. Penn State coach James Franklin says Barkley will be good to go against Wisconsin, but who knows how healthy he will be? Backup running backs Andre Robinson and Mark Allen are capable running backs, but they are not close to the caliber of Barkley. If he is not close to 100 percent, it would be a big blow to the Lions. Penn State also utilizes quarterback Trace McSorley as a runner. The sophomore quarterback has nearly 400 yards rushing on the season with six games of at least 40 yards rushing, and rushing statistics include sacks. Fortunately, Bucky has faced a number of running quarterbacks throughout the season, so this is nothing new to the Badgers defense. Wisconsin’s run defense struggled early on against Minnesota, but dominated the second half and the stats looked great again. The Badgers held the potent Gophers running back duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to a combined 82 yards on 22 carries. Overall, Bucky is ranked third in the country in rush defense, allowing barely over 100 yards rushing per game. If Wisconsin stops the Lions running game and forces Penn State to be one-dimensional, it would give the Badgers a huge advantage.

Edge: Wisconsin

When Penn State passes...

Wisconsin’s pass defense has been one of the biggest surprises this year. After losing both starting safeties from last year, including captain Michael Caputo, most people thought the safeties would be a liability. That could not have ended up being further from the truth, as D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso have combined for nine interceptions, and have been a real strength this season. First-year defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard, along with first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, has helped the defensive backs become one of the best units in college football. Leonhard, who is tied for the school record in picks, has had a big influence on the secondary. Wisconsin leads the nation with 21 interceptions, including 11 in its last three games. However, the Badgers have not faced a quarterback who is as good of a passer as McSorley. The Nittany Lions signal caller is 28th in the country in passing and has thrown 21 touchdowns and just five picks. He has a number of weapons at his disposal as well. Junior wide receiver Chris Godwin is the leading receiver, hauling in 47 passes for 762 yards and nine touchdowns. Tight end Mike Gesicki has become a reliable target for McSorley. One of the conference’s best tight ends has had at least 60 yards receiving in three of the last four games. Penn State has already faced the stout defenses of Ohio State and Michigan earlier this season, and now faces another top defense. In the two games against those teams, McSorley has a completion percentage of 48 percent and has averaged just 138 yards passing. He’ll need to perform better if the Lions want to win the Big Ten title. Wisconsin ranked No. 23 in pass yards allowed, but vault up to No. 5 in opponents quarterback rating and have 31 sacks. The Badgers will need to put pressure on McSorley to force him into mistakes to give their offense a short field.

Edge: Wisconsin

Special Teams

Like normal, Wisconsin is at a disadvantage on special teams. Penn State kicker Tyler Davis has been one of the most accurate in college football this year. The junior is 21-of-23 on the year, but has a long of just 40 yards. Andrew Endicott has made 11-of-16 filling in for the injured Rafael Gaglianone. Endicott has made five of his last six field goals, though. He does have a longer made field goal than Davis, making a 46-yarder against Ohio State. In punting, the Nittany Lions are in the middle of the pack in the country, while Wisconsin is now second to last. Penn State is second in the conference in kick coverage, while the Badgers are one of the worst in the Big Ten in kick returning. Wisconsin has not been hurt yet by its lack of a special teams, though (knock on wood).

Edge: Penn State

Overview

This is the most intriguing conference championship game this year. Penn State’s offense is on a roll, averaging 46.5 points per game in its last five, but Wisconsin’s defense has only allowed more than 20 once this season. The Nittany Lions have dominated the second half, outscoring opponents 274-102 in the third and fourth quarters this season. That is the second best differential in the FBS, only behind Alabama. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has shut out its opponent in the second half five times. That is tied for most in college football. Something has to give. You know the saying, defenses win championships. It will be a close game, but I think the Badgers will force a few turnovers and turn them into points. The Lions are without both starting offensive tackles, so they will have a hard time containing Wisconsin’s great tandem of linebackers in Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt. If Penn State is behind the chains at all, it could be in trouble. The Nittany Lions are 12th in the conference with a 32.2 conversion percentage. I believe this will come down to the wire, but the Badgers defense makes a play at the end of the game to seal the deal.

Prediction: Wisconsin 20, Penn State 17