All of a sudden, we're talking about the last game of the regular season.
I was answering some questions for Black Shoe Diaries' Q&A, and it struck me -- how long ago does the Oregon State loss feel? And what about the subsequent firing of Mike Markuson? Those two, three days felt like the harbinger of all the craziness that's struck this football team -- and the whole conference, really -- and set the "we don't really know what we're gonna get" tone of the season.
Now, remarkably, the Badgers are right where we thought they'd be. A berth in the Big Ten Championship Game is already secured, and a win there returns Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl. Just like we all expected, right?
Penn State, meanwhile, has dealt with an entirely different sort of a "crazy" season. Given everything that transpired over the offseason -- namely the Jerry Sandusky trial and Joe Paterno's firing and eventual passing -- the Nittany Lions have responded in incredible fashion. Their 5-2 mark in conference play puts them second in the Leaders Division, and had been postseason eligible, the Lions would've been thickly in the race for a trip to Indianapolis.
From my outsider's perspective, I marvel at the job Bill O'Brien's done to make all that happen. Now that I think of it, that's one thing I wish I would've asked Devon Edwards of Black Shoe Diaries, who was kind enough to answer some questions. Devon says PSU fans have been "thrilled" with how the season has unfolded, breaks down Matt McGloin's breakout season and a defense that will be without its top linebacker, senior Michael Mauti. He also claims to have no clue of what to expect on Saturday, and we all know how that feels. Should be a fun one in Happy Valley.
1. B5Q: To start, how are Penn State fans feeling about the season thus far? What specifically has gone right or wrong, and how do you expect it all to translate into Saturday's game?
Devon: Honestly, after the sanctions, and after the losses to Ohio and Virginia, I think most Penn State fans are thrilled that the season turned out the way it has. Yeah, the losses to Ohio State and Nebraska sucked, but at least, in them, we found a return to normalcy. We cared about football again, with no caveats, no Sandusky scandal hanging over the proceedings. We'll still suffer beneath the NCAA's ridiculous penalties for the better part of the next decade, but this season showed us that we can still compete, and that Penn State football will still be Penn State football. As far as the on-field stuff, the team has come a very long way since the early part of the season -- especially in the pass defense and run game -- and has managed to play with urgency all year long. Saturday, being the finale for a very special senior class, will be a very emotional affair, and, oddly, for the first time this year, whether the Nittany Lions win or lose isn't the most important thing.
2. B5Q: In the Big Ten, Penn State ranks fourth in total offense (422.5 yards per game) and sixth in scoring offense (29.5 points per game). What are the strengths and weaknesses of PSU's offense, and how has it functioned overall?
Devon: Offensively, Penn State's done a whole lot of things right. It starts with an offensive line that's had only one poor showing all year--against Ohio State, they looked more like the struggling 2010 and 2011 units than the one that's been so good this season. Mac McWhorter has done an excellent job, though he gets a little cute in trying to rotate in the backups, and that's when we get into a little trouble. The run game, led by Zach Zwinak, has been pretty great over the second half of the year. He fumbles the ball way too much, but is very quick to the hole, manages to fall forward for extra yardage on virtually every play, and has better open field speed than you'd expect. Then there's the receivers--with all due respect to Jared Abbrederis, Allen Robinson might be the best in the Big Ten, and, before his season-ending wrist injury, tight end Kyle Carter was a matchup nightmare. With him gone, there's a bit of a vacuum at the #2 receiver spot; look out for Brandon Moseby-Felder as well as tight ends Matt Lehman and Jesse James to pick up some of the slack.
3. B5Q: Matt McGloin's senior season has been stellar (61.4% comp., 3,071 yards, 23 TD, 5 INT). What's been the greatest reason for his improvement? Does anyone ever talk about his NFL prospects?
Devon: Nobody saw McGloin's breakout season coming, least of all me. Hell, I still think Rob Bolden should be starting. Seriously, though, McGloin is a confident, aggressive kind of quarterback, and now that he's in a system that rewards that, he's playing so much looser it's not even funny. Not having to look over his shoulder can't hurt, too. Neither can having the guy who coached Tom Brady working with you. But while he simply doesn't have the arm to make it into the NFL, McGloin's become a very good college quarterback--he's able to make multiple reads, something he never did before, and given the autonomy to make checks at the line of scrimmage, he's become a better leader. He's still prone to emotional swings and the occasional bonehead decision, but his throws, for the most part, have been pretty
4. B5Q: How good is Penn State's defense? The Nittany Lions rank fourth in scoring defense (18.9 points allowed per game) and sixth in total defense (357 yards allowed per game). How good is PSU's defense?
Devon: Penn State's defense is pretty damn good, though I say that with one giant caveat. Michael Mauti was the best player on the defense, maybe the best linebacker in the Big Ten, and he'll miss the game with what looks like his third torn ACL in four years. It really is just a damn shame, for a great leader, and the heart and soul of this team. Still, Butkus Award semifinalist Gerald Hodges is no slouch himself, and neither is Mike Hull, who will take Mauti's spot at outside linebacker. The front seven, as it always has been, is the strength of this Penn State team--in front of the linebackers, keep an eye on DT Jordan Hil, who is a disruptive player, and freshman DE Deion Barnes, who looks like he'll be a great one. The weakness is in the passing game--the Lions are too thin to play nickel with much consistency, and free safety Malcolm Willis might miss another game, meaning the middle of the field will be ripe for the taking for the Badgers.
5. B5Q: As quickly as you can, how do you breakdown the advantages between these teams on offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff and intangibles?
Devon: The matchup is a pretty good one for Penn State, which is why the Lions are 3-point favorites. Slowing down Montee Ball is much easier said than done, but Penn State does a great job both stuffing run plays at the line of scrimmage and flowing to the ball carrier for short gains. They're vulnerable to the pass, but Wisconsin hasn't looked to throw all that much since Stave went down. Without Mauti, it'll be tougher, but that's still the strength of a very good run defense. And offensively, Penn State is a more dynamic passing attack than Wisconsin's seen this year, and I think O'Brien will find ways to exploit that. Honestly, though, I think these are two pretty evenly matched teams, so it should be a very fun game to watch.
6. B5Q: Wisconsin has been remarkably difficult to predict this year. Given that and what you've seen from Penn State, what kind of game are you expecting on Saturday?
Devon: Wisconsin has been playing darn good football lately -- the heinous call on 3rd and inches in the Ohio State game might have changed that last drive, and that's a game Wisconsin might well have won. This will really come down to whether Penn State's offensive line can slow the Wisconsin pass rush, and to what degree the defense can bottle up Montee Ball. Penn State hasn't really looked to play a tight, low-scoring game, while Wisconsin's somewhat comfortable in that situation, so we'll have to see, if this is a game that's in the teens entering the fourth quarter, how Bill O'Brien looks to respond.
7. B5Q: Do you have a prediction?
Devon: I have never and will never pick against Penn State, and honestly, I don't know what to expect. This is going to be an unbelievably emotional afternoon, especially for the seniors, and I'm hoping that will carry them to one last win. Let's pick a couple numbers out of a hat and say it's 24-20, Lions.