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2021 football opponent preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

The Badgers haven’t played the Nittany Lions in a couple of years. What has James Franklin’s squad been up to?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Pitt at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers open up fall practice on Friday and the rest of the country will be joining them shortly. For the rest of the month we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Here is our first of these posts featuring Wisconsin’s first opponent!

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Team name: Penn State Nittany Lions
2020 record: 4-5, No. 3 Big Ten East
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, Sept. 4, Camp Randall Stadium
Last time vs. Wisconsin: 2018, No. 21 Penn State 22 - Wisconsin 10, Beaver Stadium

Returning leaders:
Passing: JR QB Sean Clifford, 152-of-251 (60.6%), 1,883 yards, 16 TDs, nine INTs, 335 rushing yards (3.4 ypc), three TDs
Rushing: FR RB Keyvone Lee, 438 yards (4.9 ypc), four TDs
Receiving: JR WR Jahan Dotson, 52 receptions, 884 yards (17 ypc), eight TDs
Tackles: JR MLB Ellis Brooks, 60 tackles, 4.5 TFL
Sacks: SO WLB Brandon Smith, two sacks
Interceptions: SR SS Jaquan Brisker, among many others, one INT

Key offensive player: The Nittany Lions rushing attack was very pedestrian last season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry (No. 86 in the country) and 174 yards per game (No. 55). One of the main reasons for that was due to the fact that the top two running backs for PSU got hurt last year and missed the entire season. Journey Brown got hurt before the season started and retired from football while Noah Cain was also knocked out with a leg injury after only six plays.

Cain was coming off of a true freshman year where he scored eight touchdowns on 84 carries while rushing for 443 yards (5.3 ypc). He was an electric presence in the backfield and should be 100% healthy by the time PSU comes to Madison. The Nittany Lions have a lot of offensive weapons, so the Badgers will have their hands full right out of the gate this year.

Key defensive player: Penn State is known for their linebackers. They have a vast and storied history of producing NFL-caliber players at that position that might lead you to believe they just have an assembly like in State College when they make them. However, no linebacker succeeds alone and that’s why I think Penn State’s NG, P.J. Mustipher, is so important to their defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Penn State at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mustipher is a massive person, clocking in at 6-foot-4 and weighing 326 pounds, and he swallows up blockers to allow those aforementioned linebackers to swarm to the ball carrier. He had 35 tackles (0.5 TFL) himself last season and also recorded one sack. It will be interesting to see how the reworked Wisconsin o-line is able to handle Mustipher.

2021 season preview: Last year’s season started hilariously for fans of, uh, not Penn State. They started the season ranked No. 8 and opened the year losing at Indiana in overtime and then...they lost their next four games, including matchups against Maryland and Nebraska, to start the year 0-5. To their credit, they bounced back in a big way and won their final four games, most of which came in blowout fashion, but the awful start to the season left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

While looking over their roster and reading up on them to write this post, I found myself thinking “this is for sure a top-20 team this year.” With 16 returning starters, there is just way too much talent, on both sides of the ball, for them to struggle a second straight year.

Their running backs and wide receivers are probably the second best units in the conference, behind Ohio State’s, and their secondary is a veteran group that reminds me of Wisconsin’s in that their sum is greater than the whole of their parts. WR Jahan Dotson (pictured below) is one of the best in the country and Parker Washington burst onto the scene as a freshman last year so defenses can’t just focus on Dotson.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

I see eight “no doubt” wins on Penn State’s schedule, one “no doubt” loss (Ohio State) and then three “toss-ups.” The Wisconsin game to start the season is one of those “toss-ups” and could go a long way in dictating how the rest of PSU’s season goes.