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3 keys to a Wisconsin win vs. Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game

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How the Badgers can smell the roses, or possibly go even further.

Minnesota v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

A trip to Pasadena and maybe more is on the line for the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers as they face the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions for the Big Ten championship Saturday night in Indianapolis.

UW (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) reeled off six straight wins and captured the Big Ten West division title behind a reemerged rushing attack, a stingy front seven on defense and a nation-leading 21 interceptions by Justin Wilcox’s squad.

After a 2-2 start, Penn State (10-2, 8-1) has won eight straight with an improved rush defense and a dynamic offense led by the conference’s leader in pass efficiency.

No. 4 Washington may have secured its spot in the College Football Playoff with Friday night’s 41-10 win over Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game. No. 3 Clemson is a favorite against Virginia Tech on Saturday, but if the Hokies upset the Tigers, the Badgers and Nittany Lions could be playing for more than just the conference championship.

If not, a trip to Pasadena and a Rose Bowl berth will await the winner, something both programs weren’t expected to achieve coming into the 2016 season.

Three keys to a Wisconsin win:

Contain Penn State’s explosive plays and force the Nittany Lions into third downs

The Nittany Lions have 80 plays of 20 or more yards, seventh-best in the country, with much credit due to quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley’s status may be up in the air due to an injury suffered last week against Michigan State, but it sounds like the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year (1,219 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns) will suit up.

McSorley leads the Big Ten in passer efficiency (150.9 rating) and has thrown 21 touchdowns compared to only five interceptions. He’s also only completed 56.3 percent of his passes, but wide receiver Chris Godwin (47 receptions, 762 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) and tight end Mike Gesicki (44, 610, three) are prime targets. The top five leading receivers for the Nittany Lions average over 13.9 yards per catch, and McSorley leads the nation in yards per completion.

The redshirt sophomore slinger can also run the ball, rushing for 372 yards and six touchdowns.

“Very impressed,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday about McSorley. “I remember talking about him—it was a few weeks back—we were just getting ready for someone else, but you saw him. There’s a guy that loved the way that he competes, plays the position. He does so many things to extend plays. Looks like he’s gaining confidence and going. He’s got weapons around him. I’m really impressed with him.”

Wisconsin comes into the game ranked in the top 10 in the nation in interceptions (first with 21), scoring defense (third with 13.7 points allowed per game), total defense (seventh with 292 yards allowed per game) and rush defense (third with 100.8 yards allowed per game). Though the Badgers are 23rd in the nation in pass defense (191.3 yards allowed per game), Justin Wilcox’s squad is fifth in the nation in pass efficiency (97.7).

Halt Barkley and some of Penn State’s potency on first and second down, and Wisconsin has shown it can win on third down. The Badgers are second in the conference and third in the nation in preventing third-down conversions (only 26.6 percent), while Penn State is third-worst in the conference in moving the chains on that down (32.24 percent).

Establish the run game

Wisconsin has rushed for over 200 yards per game in five of its last seven outings, with senior running back Corey Clement going over 100 yards in six of the last seven. All three running backs in Clement, fellow senior Dare Ogubowale and an emerging Bradrick Shaw have produced behind a stabilized offensive line once ravaged by injuries in the first five games.

Add in redshirt senior wide receiver Jazz Peavy, who’s averaging 15.5 yards per carry on 17 attempts—most through the jet, or “Jazz” sweep—and Penn State has to account for many weapons in this phase of the game.

The Nittany Lions, however, have improved their rush defense of late, allowing over 100 yards twice in their past six games while also holding Ohio State to 168 yards on 40 carries in their 24-21 upset win in October.

As Black Shoe Diaries’ Aaron Yorke noted, the return of two linebackers—junior Jason Cabinda (62 tackles, four for loss) and senior Brandon Bell (74 tackles, 6.5 for loss, three sacks)—has helped solidify that aspect of their 4-3 scheme.

If Wisconsin can’t run the ball, it will have to contend with a Penn State defense second in the conference in sacks (37, also tied for 12th in the nation). Defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan are tied for the team lead with six sacks each.

“They’re good, they’re physical,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said on Tuesday about the Nittany Lions’ front seven. “Penn State prides themselves on their linebacker play. They got three guys there that are solid. Their two defensive ends are well-coached, they’re physical. They’re a good front.”

The Wild Card: Bart Houston

Earlier on Saturday during ESPN College Gameday’s broadcast, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst told Sam Ponder that he thinks redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook will be available to play.

Having Hornibrook back is beneficial for what the Badgers can run offensively, but Houston has looked like the better quarterback of late, and when he’s on he seems to be the dynamic signal caller this offense needs.

Houston has led nine scoring drives in the past two weeks against Minnesota and Purdue, and since the Iowa game where he came in for Hornibrook the California native has completed 25 of 37 passes for 385 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception. He’s also shown a mobility not seen with Hornibrook, which makes defenses account for another dimension of the offense.

Houston has also shown the ability to convert scoring opportunities when presented, something that was missing during the first three games of the season.

Wisconsin’s passing game isn’t the strength of the team, but Houston’s consistent and productive play will be needed on Saturday. Turnovers via fumbles or interceptions cannot be afforded, but if he continues to showcase his talents like he has of late, the Badgers could be in prime position to head back to Pasadena—or even land a playoff berth.

“No, there’s no pressure,” Houston said on Tuesday when asked if there was any pressure to out-duel McSorley. “My job is to move our offense down the field and not compare to anybody else in the nation or on the other side of the field. I just have to be the good me, and Alex has to be the good him. Everybody on offense has to be the good them to move the ball forward. It doesn’t matter what anybody else does—it only matters whose on the field at that time.”

Prediction

This should be a fun one to watch. Wisconsin will be tested against a dynamic Penn State offense. McSorley, Barkley and co., will get a couple of plays, but UW’s defense should be up to the task after some corrections in the run game following the poor first-half showing against Minnesota.

Offensively, Chryst has added certain wrinkles to his playcalling each week (see: 11 personnel under center with some screen looks). It will be interesting to see Wisconsin combat an improving Penn State defense, but the Badgers should be able to move the ball with certain opportunities.

It’s close, but I think the Badgers hold the Nittany Lions enough on offense and get the job done at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Wisconsin 23, Penn State 21