The No. 16 Wisconsin Badgers (9-2, 5-2) wrap up their regular season schedule Saturday afternoon against No. 19 Penn State (9-2, 6-1). The winner will head to the first ever Big Ten Championship Game against No. 14 Michigan State December 3, representing the Leaders division.
Here are my key matchups and story lines for Saturday’s game:
Russell Wilson vs. Penn State Defense
Russell Wilson hasn't thrown for over 200 yards since November 5. The Badgers will need him to perform well Saturday and lead the offense against the stout Penn State defense.
After seeing the success the Badgers have had running the ball in recent weeks, Penn State will try to shut down Montee Ball and the Wisconsin rushing attack. The win against Illinois last week wasn’t too convincing, but the Badgers were committed to the run, attempting 45 rushes, and were able to wear down the Illini defense. The Nittany Lions are decent against the run, allowing just over 127 yards per game, and are one of the top teams in the country defending the pass, allowing just 160 yards per game. I expect them to focus on stopping the run and to keep eight players in the box at all times, and hope their secondary can contain Russell Wilson, Nick Toon, and the rest of the Wisconsin passing game. It’s the only hope Penn State has to get its pedestrian offense as many opportunities to score as possible. So if Russell Wilson can have a performance like the ones he put on regularly at the beginning of the year, the Badgers should put up enough points to keep the pressure on the Nittany Lions to score.
Stephfon Green vs. Wisconsin Defense
Penn State doesn’t have much on offense, averaging just 20.9 points per game, but senior running back Stephfon Green has emerged in recent weeks to give the Nittany Lions a fighting chance. After not playing for much of the season, Green has run for 164 yards and four touchdowns in the last two games, most notably scoring two times in last week’s close win over Ohio State (20-14). The Badgers’ run defense has been weak at times this season, and the unit as a whole gives up a lot of yards while relying on turnovers to keep offenses out of the end zone. It would help out the Penn State defense a lot if Green could get consistent yardage, especially if the Badgers don’t get out to an early lead. Look for Wisconsin to rotate in a lot of defensive linemen to keep them fresh as they try to slow down Green, while the secondary tries to not fall asleep keeping watch over the dreadful Penn State passing game.
Penn State vs. Wisconsin Student Section
Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote about this earlier in the week, and it really could factor into the game. The student section at Camp Randall Stadium is notorious for personal, timely, and– some might say– inappropriate chants and gestures. School administrators couldn’t get them to stop cursing even with offering a trip for two to the Badgers’ bowl game, so it might be tough to prevent chants about the recent sexual abuse allegations against former Penn State coach, Jerry Sandusky. The Penn State players, coaches, and fans have gone through a lot the past couple weeks, especially with the abrupt firing of legendary coach, Joe Paterno. If the Wisconsin crowd can get into the players’ heads on Saturday, the Nittany Lions could be off their game a bit. This is a consequence of playing on the road, which Wisconsin has struggled with all season. Any potential chants could also work to anger and motivate the Penn State players, and it all just depends on how they let it affect them. If they manage to pull off a victory Saturday and go on to compete for the Big Ten championship, it would be an impressive feat considering everything they’ve gone through. But the Wisconsin crowd will be fully behind its Badgers Saturday afternoon, and try to make it as tough as they can for Penn State.
Wisconsin has been unbeatable at home this season, scoring 52.3 points per game. The Badgers responded well against a tough opponent at home earlier in the year when they defeated then-No. 8 Nebraska, 48-17, and they will probably draw on that experience to get ready for Saturday. The Penn State players will come in fully motivated and look to prove all their doubters wrong. Both teams have a lot to play for, as a shot to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl is a lot more appealing than getting stuck in the “Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl” or some other mid-level bowl game.
The game being in Madison is a big advantage for the Badgers. They’ll have the crowd behind them and the benefit of knowing they’ve been so successful at Camp Randall all season. The Wisconsin defense will do just enough and Russell Wilson will return to his game-changing ways and lead the Badgers to a 27-17 victory, getting Wisconsin to the Big Ten Championship Game for a shot at redemption against Michigan State.