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Getting to know the Penn State Nittany Lions

A look at who has stood out for James Franklin’s program this season

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

The unranked Wisconsin Badgers travel out east this week as they head to Happy Valley to take on the No. 21 Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday.

Both programs probably did not foresee themselves heading into this early November match-up with three losses, with Penn State’s all coming during Big Ten contests. Both teams have seen their starting quarterbacks injured, and both have suffered blowout losses to Michigan at the Big House.

The all-time series between the two programs is tied at 9-9 heading into the Saturday morning match-up (11 a.m. CT, ABC).

Let’s take a deeper look at Penn State.


  • Scoring offense: 37.2 points per game (23rd in the nation)
  • Rushing offense: 207.9 yards per game (34th in nation)
  • Passing offense: 221.2 yards per game (80th in nation)
  • Total offense: 429.1 yards per game (49th in nation)
  • 3rd-down conversions: 34.2 percent (110th in the nation)

On paper the offense looks like a balanced attack, though if Wisconsin can hold Penn State from gaining big plays on first and second down, it could get Trace McSorley and that unit off the field based on PSU’s failure to move the chains on third down.

McSorley has completed only 52 percent of his passes (127 of 244) for 1,711 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions while also rushing for 611 yards (five yards per carry) and nine rushing scores of his own as well. However, the talented quarterback has been hobbled with a knee injury, so how well his dual threat nature shows up on Saturday will be something to watch.

Running back Miles Sanders has gained 848 yards on nearly six yards per carry with eight touchdowns on the ground. Outside of Sanders and McSorley, no Penn State player has gained more than 155 yards this season.

K.J. Hamler is the big target in the receiving game, leading the team in receptions (28), receiving yards (517) and touchdown catches (five). Juwan Johnson also has reeled in 21 catches for 293 yards and a score this season.


  • Scoring defense: 24.4 points per game (49th in nation)
  • Rushing defense: 172.2 yards per game (79th in nation)
  • Passing defense: 216.3 yards per game (51st in nation)
  • Total defense: 388.6 yards per game (59th in nation)
  • 3rd-down conversions allowed: 35.3 percent (41st in nation)

The big stat that pops out when looking at this defense is the number of sacks (29), which leads the Big Ten and ranks ninth in the nation in sacks per game (3.22).

“I mean schematically, they bring a ton of pressures, like we saw in the 2016 [Big Ten] championship game,” right tackle David Edwards said on Tuesday. “Didn’t really see a lot of base defense. It was always some type of pressure, but third down, those defensive linemen just kind of are able to free roam and rush. I think that’s huge for a d-lineman knowing that he kind of has free reign to get after the quarterback.”

Edwards praised the two starting ends on the team, Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller, noting how both “can move, and they’re long and they’re twitchy and they’re athletic.”

Gross-Matos leads the team in tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (seven), while Miller has contributed 8.5 and four, respectively. Edwards also called out redshirt junior defensive tackles Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens, who have combined for 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks so far.

“54 [Windsor] and 30 [Givens] are also pretty stout, good players, and I think the film kind of speaks for itself. They’re a good defense. They’ve had a lot of success this year, so it’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”

Linebackers Jan Johnson and Micah Parsons both lead the team in tackles with 51. Parsons is a true freshman who has also contributed four quarterback hurries to the defense.

Penn State has intercepted nine passes this year, with Garrett Taylor, Nick Scott and Amani Oruwariye tied for the team leads with two each. Oruwariye leads the team with 11 pass break-ups.

Special teams

Hamler looks like a dynamic returner, averaging nearly 27 yards per kickoff return in 18 attempts with a long of 67. DeAndre Thompkins averages 10.1 yards per punt return with a touchdown this season.

Kicker Jake Pinegar has converted on nine of 13 field goal attempts (long of 49), but is only three of six between 40-49 yards. To his benefit, he has connected on his last six attempts, including making the last three from 44 yards or longer.

Punter Blake Gillian has averaged 43 yards per punt on 48 attempts, with 13 being inside the 20-yard line.