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Q&A: What to expect from Wisconsin vs. Penn State

Our chat with Black Shoe Diaries.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In a cross-divisional battle of three-loss teams, the Wisconsin Badgers head to State College to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday.

Last Saturday, James Franklin’s program—like Wisconsin a few weeks ago—fell hard to Michigan in a 42–7 rout. Quarterback Trace McSorley is a hint banged-up and has seen some numbers drop from previous campaigns, but Penn State’s defense leads the Big Ten and is ninth in the nation in sacks.

We’ll break down Penn State in our own preview by Friday, but to help us break down the Nittany Lions today, Black Shoe DiariesAaron Yorke answered some of our questions.

Penn State suffered a rough loss at Michigan, something Wisconsin experienced earlier this year. The Nittany Lions stand at 6–3 heading into this week—what’s the general feeling about this season as a whole and what happened in Ann Arbor?

The general feeling from fans I’ve spoken to is that James Franklin should be fired as soon as possible and that the loss to Michigan is something that should never, ever happen with a team this talented. I don’t talk to the most rational fans, though.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Still, it’s safe to say that spirits are down throughout Nittany Lion nation. Unlike previous losses under Franklin, there was no one controversial play or decision to point to in Ann Arbor. The team just got smashed by a bigger and stronger team. Penn State’s explosive offense got shut out until garbage time and the defense couldn’t pick up the slack. The only silver lining is that the last time the Lions were blown out in Ann Arbor, they rolled off nine straight wins en route to the Big Ten title. There’s no title run coming this year, but maybe the team can respond positively and beat Wisconsin again.

Who’s injured, who could be returning, and how could injuries affect the game on Saturday?

McSorley will probably be less than 100 percent healthy for the remainder of the regular season. He’s playing through a knee injury that appears to have hampered both his running and throwing ability. Still, he seems to be a slightly better option than backup Tommy Stevens at the moment. That could change, though, if the Penn State offense gets off to another poor start.

Elsewhere in the backfield, Ricky Slade, the backup to Miles Sanders, hasn’t touched the ball in the last three games, so he is probably battling something as well.

Penn State appears very balanced on offense (221.2 yards per game passing, 207.9 rushing) but is 110th in the nation in third-down conversions. What has gone well for McSorley and the unit so far, and what has hindered them? Who should Wisconsin fans look out for this weekend?

With McSorley banged up, Penn State will probably try to get the running game going with Sanders. He took some direct snaps against Michigan, and while those didn’t work too well, nothing else did either.

Perhaps the biggest factor in the Michigan loss was McSorley’s inability to run the ball. Even when the passing game has been spotty this season, the quarterback has been able to make up for it with his legs. Even after injuring his knee against Iowa, McSorley came back in the game and ran for a 51-yard touchdown that ended up making the difference.

It will be interesting to see if McSorley begins to call his own number again if the Lions trail late in this one. Franklin will probably try to protect the quarterback in the early going, but McSorley loves having the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

On defense, Penn State leads the conference and is ninth in the nation in sacks per game. How do the Nittany Lions generate so much pressure on opposing offenses, and who are the main contributors on the unit?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Yetur Gross-Matos is the guy to watch out for, as he has been a major factor with at least half a sack in each of his last four games. On the other side of the line, Shareef Miller is the next-best pass rusher on the team. Shaka Toney has five sacks for the season but four of those came in the Indiana game, so he hasn’t been the most consistent force. Kevin Givens only has one sack this year, but he’s been getting better at applying pressure from the inside and cutting through the line on running plays.

On both sides of the ball, where could Wisconsin gain an advantage against Penn State? And where do you see the Nittany Lions being able to impose their will on the Badgers?

I think that both defenses will have the edge in this game. Penn State may have allowed 132 yards to Karan Higdon last weekend, but the defense played the run well for the majority of the game after Higdon exploded for more than 60 yards on the opening possession. I don’t think it will be easy for Jonathan Taylor to gain yards consistently, especially with the quarterback situation up in the air. When Penn State has the ball, the Badgers should concentrate on getting the Lions in third-and-long situations and then laying into McSorley. The Penn State offense has been such a mess lately that the Badgers can cause major problems just by avoiding the big play.

What’s your prediction for Saturday?

I think Penn State will figure out how to win an ugly game. The Michigan loss was ugly, but Wisconsin profiles a lot like Iowa, and the Lions won that game even after spotting the Hawkeyes 12 points. I expect Penn State’s defense to play very well and give the offense enough opportunities to figure something out against a defense that isn’t as scary as Michigan’s. Penn State 22, Wisconsin 15.