It’s finally time folks! After a long off-season college football is back. Wisconsin starts off their season with a big test against the No. 19 Penn State Nittany Lions. Coming into the year Penn State is off of a season that was really a tale of two halves. Last year the Nittany Lions started with five straight losses but finished the season with four straight wins.
Penn State will, of course, be hoping to keep the magic they found at the end of the season and turn that into a successful start in 2021. Wisconsin, on the other hand, will hope to exploit some of those same mistakes that caused the Nittany Lions to play so poorly at the start of the year. Here is what the Badgers need to try and do to come away with a victory Saturday afternoon.
Force consistent pressure
One reason for the struggle early in 2021 for the Nittany Lions was due to very poor offensive line play. For the season Penn State ranked No. 110 in sacks allowed with an average of 3.11 sacks per game against them. That mark is far too high to have success offensively. When you break that down further, you see a clear correlation between wins and losses.
In the five-game losing streak to start the season, Penn State allowed a total of 21 sacks. In the four-game winning streak to end, Penn State allowed just eight sacks. Essentially, when they protected the quarterback even a little bit they were able to win games. When they didn’t, they lost. Part of that is the opponent too as the games they won we’re against the bottom feeders of the divisions in Rutgers (fifth in East), Michigan (sixth in East), Michigan State (seventh in East), and Illinois (seventh in West).
For Wisconsin to have the success they want they’ll need to apply that same pressure that got to Penn State last year. Jim Leonhard’s entire defensive scheme runs off causing pressure, and if they don’t have it puts a lot more on the secondary.
Wisconsin ranked No. 100 in team sacks, and that mark will need to improve a lot to take this defense to the higher level it wants to get to. If they can attack the new faces on the Penn State offensive line and get to Sean Clifford often they should be set up for success here. It doesn’t always have to result in a sack, but keeping the pocket dirty is important. Clifford is also susceptible to turnovers, throwing nine interceptions a year ago.
Keep them on their heels
Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry has been with James Franklin for years but this past campaign was one of his group's worst seasons. In fact, the points per game allowed were the worst in school history at 27.7 PPGA. One thing that really stood out when looking at this group was the lack of explosive plays defensively. For the season, Penn State forced just ten turnovers and 21 sacks in their nine games. Of the 21 sacks produced, 11.5 of them were from players no longer on the roster.
This year, Penn State will be breaking in an almost entirely new defensive line. The raw talent is there, but the game experience is not as high. With Paul Chryst taking back over play calling I’m interested to see how he attacks this new front. Will he try to play bully ball and run it down their throats? Or will he try to confuse them throwing the ball on traditional run down and distance?
Personally, I think it will be important to try and find the balance between the two and keep them on their heels. Chryst is a great play-caller when it comes to the flow of a game, and I believe giving their defensive line a lot of different looks in both phases will be key.
Jump on them early
Looking at Penn State the talent is certainly there, but so are the question marks. The same can be said for Wisconsin of course, so landing the first punch will be important here. On offense, the Nittany Lions have an experienced quarterback in Clifford but he and the rest of the group are learning another new offensive system. This is the third offensive coordinator in three years at Penn State, so it’s fair to assume some growing pains early. The same can be said defensively with some new faces littering the line.
Wisconsin had a down year last year, but they don’t bring in as many new pieces as Penn State. Add in the advantage of having this game at home, with some players being in front of fans for the first time at the college level, and you have the opportunity to try and jump out quick and put the pressure on early.
Both teams will be looking to throw the first punch, and Wisconsin needs to try and be the one to do so. If you can get out to a strong start you can really put the pressure on the opposing sideline. With a raucous crowd, likely even louder than usual, you have a huge home field advantage to try and take, well, advantage of here. I would expect Wisconsin to really try and crank the pressure up when the opportunity arises.