Nittany Lions Hoping for Big Upset Against No. 15 Wisconsin

Penn State’s roller coaster season comes to a close tomorrow afternoon against Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1) at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The Badgers are almost certainly the second toughest opponent that Penn State (6-5, 3-4) has faced this season, trailing only National Title-contender Ohio State.

A Christian Hackenberg-led offense has been great at times and pedestrian at others. The defense has been inconsistent at all levels, looking great in both the secondary and front seven in some weeks but struggling in others.

Tomorrow’s game will determine whether or not the the Nittany Lions finish the 2013 season with a winning record in Bill O’Brien’s second year leading the team. Things don’t bode well for Penn State as the Nittany Lions will face the best defense and run game that its lined up against all season.

“This is a big challenge,” Bill O’Brien said. “They run the football very well. They’re very well coached. They’re physical, they’re big. Gary Andersen has done a good job coming in there and putting his style of play and putting his mark on that program right away. It’s a big challenge. They have two good running backs; guys that have each gained a lot of yards. Our guys will be there in Wisconsin on Saturday. That’s what I will tell you.”

The running backs that O’Brien mentioned are Melvin Gordon and James White. The duo will be discussed further later on, but they each have 1,200+ yards and at least 12 touchdowns on the season, wreaking havoc on opposing defensive lines all season long. The two biggest challenges that Penn State faces tomorrow is the Wisconsin run game and trying to score points on one of the toughest defenses in the nation.

The Badgers allow just 13.4 points and 279.5 yards per game. They have a strong defense on both levels, excelling in defending the pass and stopping the run. The defense has nine interceptions and has forced 17 fumbles on the year. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but Wisconsin is fundamentally sound on the defensive side of the ball and will almost certainly cause issues for Hackenberg and the Penn State offense.

Facing a defense that is great at both defending the pass and stopping the run, it is hard to predict how O’Brien will approach the game from an offensive standpoint. The run has been working in recent weeks, but he also trusts his true freshman quarterback immensely and has said that Hackenberg has improved immensely as the season has gone on.

Regardless of what the Nittany Lions’ offensive game plan will be, there is no doubt that they are looking at one of the biggest challenges of the season on the road against Wisconsin tomorrow. Let’s take a look at some Badgers worth keeping an eye on tomorrow:

Melvin Gordon #25 and James White #20 — This running back duo is arguably the best in the nation. The Badgers average nearly 300 yards per game rushing the ball, and that is largely thanks to these two running backs. Gordon has carried the ball 168 times for 1,413 yards and 12 touchdowns while White has 196 attempts for 1,320 yards and 13 touchdowns. They both average over 116 yards per game and over 6.5 yards per carry. Penn State allows 146.2 rushing yards per game, less than half of what Wisconsin averages, so the front seven certainly won’t roll over against these two, but this is one of the primary matchups to watch on Saturday.

 Joel Stave #2 — This sophomore quarterback, who rocks a flowing blonde mane a la Shane McGregor, is having a solid season. Stave is completing 63 percent of his passes and has totaled 2,075 yards, 17 touchdowns, and nine interceptions through 11 games this year. The Badgers focus on the run on offense, but Stave will get his share of chances to sling the ball on Saturday.

Chris Borland #44 — This senior inside linebacker is one of the best at the position in the country. Borland leads the Badgers with 92 tackles, including eight for a loss and four sacks on the season. He has forced one fumble and recovered two. Borland is one of three Badgers with four or more sacks on the season and will make plenty of tackles on Saturday.

With that, here are some things to watch for from the Nittany Lions tomorrow:

Emotions — Seventeen Penn State players will be taking the field in blue and white for the last time against Wisconsin on Saturday. This is essentially the Nittany Lions’ bowl game for the season. With nothing else to play for, Penn State will be laying it all on the line tomorrow. In a game like that, it is important to keep emotions in check. As O’Brien has stressed the concept of 12 individual one-game seasons all year long, hopefully that won’t be an issue.

The offense — With a solid offensive line, a talented quarterback, one of the best wide receivers in the nation, and a respectable running back corps, the Penn State offense should be able to make some dents against Wisconsin on Saturday. Having said that, the Badgers are capable of absolutely demolishing any opposing offense on any given week, especially one that’s led by an inexperienced head coach and an inexperienced quarterback. This game might be a bit of a barometer for the future of Penn State, so it will be interesting to see what the unit can manage against a tough Wisconsin defense.

No matter what happens against the Badgers, it’s hard to be too disappointed in this season for Penn State considering all the obstacles they overcame to even get to this point.

By the Numbers: Wisconsin is about as strong as it gets on defense. The Badgers allow 179.0 passing yards and 99.5 rushing yards per game. Penn State averages 251.9 passing yards and 178.4 rushing yard per game. Chances are that the numbers for the Nittany Lions will fall somewhere in between those averages.

Blast from the Past: Penn State is 7-9 all-time against the Badgers in a series that dates back to 1953. The teams last met in 2012 in a memorable Senior Day win for the Nittany Lions that took an overtime and a Sam Ficken field goal to seal a 24-21 win. Zach Zwinak ran for 179 yards in the game while Matt McGloin threw for 200 yards and a touchdown. Jordan Hill led the defense with 12 tackles and a pair of sacks.

About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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