Keys To Victory: What The Nittany Lions Need To Do To Be Big Ten Champions
The Wisconsin Badgers are the sixth best team in the nation with an impressive 10-2 record under their belts. Despite this, they are only favored by two points on Saturday. They are certainly beatable, but Penn State will likely have to play its most complete game of the year.
To get a sense of what the Lions are up against, let’s take a look at how the Wisconsin offense and defense performs. Wisconsin comes into Saturday’s contest with the No. 106 passing offense in the nation which is not very good to say the least. The Badgers average an abysmal 179.6 passing yards per game and have only 13 passing touchdown to 10 interceptions. For comparison, Penn State has thrown 21 passing touchdowns to only five interceptions. This is below average as is, but if recently injured starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook can’t play, this could be even worse.
To complement its lackluster pass game, Wisconsin features a potent rushing attack in star running back Corey Clement. The Badgers are the No. 44 rushing offense in the nation with an impressive 201.5 rushing yards per game and 26 touchdowns. They also average 4.23 yards per carry. Senior Corey Clement leads the rushing attack with 1,140 yards and 13 touchdowns to his name — ranking him the No. 32 running back in the nation. One could make the argument that Clement is the second best running back in the Big Ten (second to Saquon Barkley of course), so stopping Clement and the Badger rushing attack will be top priority for Brent Pry’s group.
To win the defensive battle and make victory almost guaranteed, Penn State needs to simply stop the run. Penn State was already underdog to a powerful rushing attack once this year in Ohio State, and we all know how that game ended. In that contest, the Nittany Lion linebackers made stopping Mike Weber and J.T. Barrett priority and made Barrett throw the ball much more than he would’ve liked, making him scramble often and get sacked a whopping seven times. Penn State features the No. 30 passing defense in the nation allowing only 13 scores all year. The secondary is certainly the bread and butter of the defense as is the pass rush. If Hornibrook (or backup Bart Houston) is forced to throw the ball often, it is quite likely Garrett Sickels and Co. will get to him frequently and the secondary will take care of it when they don’t.
On the offensive side of the ball, the recipe for success is a balanced attack, but don’t be surprised if that doesn’t exactly go as planned. Wisconsin has relied on its stingy defense all season and it certainly helped them reach the Big Ten Title game. The past few games, Saquon Barkley has been held in check, and that is most likely going to happen again on Saturday. In all fairness Barkley has been hurting quite a bit, but at the same time, with an injured offensive line, he hasn’t found too much room to run, often getting stopped in the backfield immediately.
Wisconsin has the No. 3 rushing defense in the nation allowing 100.8 yards per game, and an impressive 3.35 yards per rush. Incredibly, the Badgers have also given up only seven touchdowns all year. To counter this fierce rush defense, Penn State ranks a mediocre No. 62 rushing offense in the nation with 178.7 yards per game. Unfortunately, the advantage goes to the defense in these contests — just look at what Wisconsin did to LSU star Leonard Fournette this September, keeping him out of the endzone the entire game.
If there is to be any rushing attack for Penn State on Saturday, it needs to focus on the read option. McSorley and Barkley have both improved on this as the season has progressed, and Barkley will need McSorley to keep it a few times in order to open up a few holes for him.
If the Lions win this game it will likely come from the air. McSorley has improved drastically as the season went on, throwing for 376 yards and four touchdowns last Saturday against the Spartans. Of course the Michigan State defense is not the same as Wisconsin as Wisconsin is the No. 23 passing defense in the nation. The Badgers secondary have 21 interceptions to their name this year and allow only 191.3 passing yards per game. Penn State has its work cut out for it against this unit but if anyone can figure it out and exploit it, it’s Joe Moorhead. Godwin and Gesicki are consistently fantastic targets, but if Penn State is going to prevail, Moorhead will need to focus on Hamilton in the slot and Barkley out of the backfield as the Badgers will concentrate on the two receiving leaders, leaving Barkley and Hamilton open.
The Penn State offense has its work cut out for it on Saturday, but all year it’s found a way to win and found some kind of weakness in the defense. The defense will have to limit the damage in the first half while the offense makes adjustments, but if Pry and his bunch can hold Wisconsin to two scores in the first half, don’t be surprised if these battling Lions pull it off once again.