It’s the Big Ten Championship Game that could elevate the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers or the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions up to the College Football Playoff, or at the very least to Pasadena.
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) faces a Penn State (10-2, 8-1) squad riding high off of eight straight wins and features a potent offense with skill players at key positions.
Penn State has reeled off eight straight wins and now find itself within one game of the Big Ten championship and, like Wisconsin, a chance at the College Football Playoff. What’s changed since the beginning of the year?
The biggest difference between the Penn State team that rolled off eight straight wins and the one that lost to Pitt and Michigan is the rush defense. Linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell both missed time with injuries early in the year, but both returned to action in time for the Ohio State game, when they combined for 31 tackles and held the Buckeyes to just 168 yards on 40 carries.
The passing offense also appears to be on the upswing, with quarterback Trace McSorley throwing for multiple touchdown passes in four of his last five games. He has just two interceptions throughout the winning streak and is coming off his best game of the season with 376 passing yards and four touchdowns against Michigan State.
Saquon Barkley was injured in Saturday’s regular-season finale against Michigan State. What’s his status for the game, and what other injuries could affect the Nittany Lions on Saturday?
James Franklin didn’t give an update on Barkley during his weekly press conference, so Penn State fans are hopeful that the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year will start at tailback on Saturday. There are no other injuries to report. If Barkley can’t go, it will likely be Andre Robinson, Mark Allen and true freshman Miles Sanders splitting the carries.
Trace McSorley and Barkley lead an offense averaging close to 37 points and 430 yards per game, only being held under 24 points once in its 49-10 loss to Michigan to start Big Ten play. What have those two done so well this year, and who are the other playmakers at key skill positions?
Barkley has been great at getting to the edge of the defense and using his athleticism to avoid defenders once he finds some space. Once he gets to the second level, Barkley has the acceleration to turn 20-yard gains into very long touchdowns. McSorley started the season with turnovers in four straight games, but since then, he’s been very reliable with the ball in his hands. The redshirt sophomore has also improved his pocket awareness, which has led to a more efficient passing game. It’s still reliant on the big play, but over the past month there have been more big plays and fewer busts than before.
The other players to watch are leading receiver Chris Godwin, who has nine touchdowns and 762 receiving yards this year, as well as tight end Mike Gesicki. After struggling with drops in 2015, the junior has turned into a reliable target who is great at catching the ball in traffic.
Penn State’s defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in its last two games and ranks fourth in the conference in total defense (20th in the FBS). Not to mention, the Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten in sacks. Who are the standouts at each level of the defense?
Bell and Cabinda might be the most important players on the defense, but Garrett Sickels and Kevin Givens have stood out as playmakers on the defensive line. Sickels has six sacks and is the team’s best pass rusher, while Givens has done a great job filling the big shoes of last year’s graduating class on the interior.
In the secondary, Malik Golden and Marcus Allen provide experience at the safety spots, but both guys are better described as run-stoppers than as pass-defenders. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry’s aggressive game plan relies a lot on cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley to handle their one-on-one matchups.
For both the offense and defense, where are they vulnerable?
On offense, Penn State has gotten better lately, but it is still lousy at converting third downs and completing passes in the red zone. If Wisconsin can eliminate some big plays, the Lions will see some drives fizzle out as they approach the goal line. Forcing a team into third-and-long is important for any defense, but it will be especially important for Wisconsin in this game, because it will take Barkley out of the picture and force McSorley to throw into the most talented secondary he has faced since the Michigan game.
Penn State hasn’t faced many great passing attacks this season, but when it has, the opponent have been able to score a little bit. Richard Lagow of Indiana threw for 292 yards and a pair of scores against the Lions, and Purdue’s David Blough also had 281 yards and two touchdowns, albeit on 50 attempts. With Alex Hornibrook banged up, it might be best for Wisconsin to stick to its strength of running the ball, but being aggressive with Bart Houston could pay dividends.
Your keys to the game, and your prediction for Saturday?
The keys to the game are for Wisconsin to force McSorley to throw some passes that he’s not comfortable with and take advantage with some turnovers. Likewise, Penn State must do its best to control the line of scrimmage and make the quarterback uncomfortable. I think Wisconsin wins a defensive battle, 17-13.