It’s been a great year for the Big Ten.
But as we approach the conference’s championship game with four teams ranked in the top seven of the latest College Football Playoff rankings and all four seemingly still having at least a chance to reach the final four, will this game be remembered as anything but the game where the league’s third- and fourth-best teams competed for a title?
It should be.
It seems to be the consensus that the tiebreaker rules have boxed the conference’s top two teams — Ohio State and Michigan — out of its championship game. But don’t let that discolor the weekend for you. The two teams that are playing for a title and a potential trip to the Playoff are definitely deserving of being in such a position. Wisconsin and Penn State are two of the top seven teams in college football, and Saturday night’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis figures to be a mighty entertaining matchup.
Offense vs. defense
The most ballyhooed aspect of this game is Penn State’s explosive offense going up against Wisconsin’s stifling defense. And that matchup is being rightfully played up.
The Nittany Lions were ineffective to say the least on the offensive side of the ball in the first two seasons under James Franklin. With star quarterback Christian Hackenberg under constant pressure and unable to move much outside the pocket, the offense was completely stuck in the mud. Exit Hackenberg, enter new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and everything has changed. Penn State ranks behind only Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten in scoring offense, averaging better than 36 points a game. It’s averaged 40.4 points per game during its eight-game winning streak, and that includes a 46.4-points-per-game average in its last five games.
The biggest star is running back Saquon Barkley, who took home Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors this week. He’s averaging more than 101 rushing yards a game and has hit the end zone 17 times this season. But the offense’s most important player has been quarterback Trace McSorley, who with greater mobility than Hackenberg ever had — and getting to play behind a better offensive line — has developed a knack for home-run plays. Penn State ranks fifth in the country in passing yards per completion, averaging a 16.2-yard gain every time a McSorley pass finds a receiver’s hands. Look no further than last weekend, when McSorley pitched three touchdown passes of 34, 45 and 59 yards during a 21-point third quarter and 35-point second half.
Between the playmaking abilities of Barkley and McSorley and the influx of Moorhead, the Penn State offense is unrecognizable from what it was at this time last season.
But here’s the thing: Penn State’s explosive offense hasn’t seen a defense like this.
Wisconsin’s defense has been stellar over the past few seasons, though no one knew how it would respond to losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU in the offseason. Well, under new coordinator Justin Wilcox, the Badgers showed exactly how they would respond in the season-opening win over who else but the Bayou Bengals. Wisconsin allowed LSU’s offense to hit the end zone just once in that game, forcing three turnovers and holding it to 257 total yards. And that’s been the blueprint for the entire season.
The Badgers rank third in the country in scoring defense — trailing only Alabama and Michigan — allowing an average of 13.7 points per game. They rank seventh in total defense, allowing an average of 292 yards per game to opposing offenses. While Wisconsin’s finest win of the season to date is LSU — it doesn’t have the top-10 victories of highly ranked conference mates Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — it’s perhaps performed best in its two losses to Ohio State and Michigan, holding those incredibly high-octane offenses in check in a games each decided by only seven points.
Penn State has its offensive stars, but Wisconsin can counter on defense with linebackers T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel and T.J. Edwards and a secondary that’s replaced three starters from last season but is even more menacing to opposing quarterbacks. The quartet of Sojourn Shelton, Leo Musso, D’Cota Dixon and Derrick Tindal have combined for 16 of the team’s nation-leading 21 interceptions.
The other side
So this game does have an “unstoppable force vs. an immovable object” kind of feel. And that really is a good thing. But don’t sell the other side of the ball short for either team.
Penn State’s defense is no slouch, trailing just Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten by allowing an average of 346.8 yards per game. The Lions boast a stellar linebacking corps led by Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell. That duo missed a combined nine games this season but made huge impacts when they did play, combing for 21 tackles in the win over Ohio State. Bell had 15 tackles in last weekend’s win over Michigan State. They combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks on the season.
And while Wisconsin’s offense hasn’t been terribly prolific against the toughest teams on their schedule — averaging 15.8 points in games against Ohio State, Michigan, LSU and Iowa — the Badgers have broken the 30-point mark five times this season. That includes each of their last three games, wins over Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota in which they averaged 42.7 points. The key, as always seems to be the case with Wisconsin, is running the ball. The offensive line has been fantastic, and Corey Clement has somewhat silently been as good as any back in the Big Ten. Clement joins Barkley and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson as the only Big Ten running backs to average more than 100 yards a game, and he’s broken the century mark in six of the last seven games and each of the last four. Plus, he’s got talented backups in Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw.
Look no further than the pass-catchers for guys who might not be getting the most attention but are certainly capable of breaking the game wide open.
Wisconsin could get a game-breaking play from Jazz Peavy, who could make something happen as a pass-catcher or ball-carrier. The Badgers have been utilizing him on the jet sweep throughout the season to tremendous effect. His season stats are chock full of plays of 20-plus, 30-plus and 40-plus yards — oh, and the 71-yard run he ripped off against Minnesota just last week. The Badgers also have reliable tight end in Troy Fumagalli, who was an All-Big Ten Second Team selection this week.
Penn State has a litany of guys who can make big plays on the receiving end of a McSorley pass. Chris Godwin is the team’s leading receiver with 762 yards and nine touchdowns, two of them coming on huge plays last weekend against Michigan State. But DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall and All-Big Ten tight end Mike Gesicki can all make things happen, too. Wisconsin’s got a lights-out secondary, but this is one of the best — if not the best — pass-catching group in the conference.
There are definitely questions for both teams, and they both come on the offensive side of the ball.
Wisconsin’s is the most glaring, as we don’t know how things will play out at quarterback. Despite all those points mentioned above in recent weeks, the Badgers’ two-quarterback system hasn’t exactly been lighting things up this year. Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston have combined to be effective in handing the ball off to Clement & Co., but outside of a few games here and there, they haven’t been asked to do too much. Hornibrook was injured last week and sat out the second half, with his status for Saturday really unknown, even though it sounds like he’s going to play. Houston is more accurate and can move better, but he hasn’t completed more than nine passes in any game since losing his starting job after Week 3.
And for the Lions, the big question is whether this offense keep things going against the best defense it’s seen since its last loss. If Wisconsin’s defense is right up there with Michigan’s in terms of stinginess, that’s not good news for Penn State, which was clobbered by Michigan earlier this year in a 49-10 mauling. The Lions gained just 191 yards in that game, Barkley held to 59 yards and no touchdowns and McSorley under constant pressure, sacked a whopping six times. The Badgers have their own pass-rushers — chiefly Watt — that could make it a brutal evening for McSorley.
The Badgers’ defense is sensational. While its’s generally had the opportunity to dominate lesser opponents — it got to play and torch three of the four Big Ten teams that didn’t reach bowl eligibility, plus games against unranked Iowa and Nebraska teams — Wisconsin has looked the part of a Playoff-caliber team. The top four defenses in the country are Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Though unlikely, that could wind up being your Playoff field.
The Lions aren’t getting the respect they deserve, believed to be in the position they’re in thanks only to a fluky win over Ohio State. But this team has traveled so far since Franklin took over that it’s difficult to comprehend. McSorley and Barkley are truly two of the best offensive players in the conference, and what they’ve done leading this offense has been outstanding.
The prediction business is a tough one to have any success in, but here goes.
Wisconsin, to me, seems the more likely victor. The Badgers’ defense will be unlike anything the Lions’ offense has seen in quite some time. Watt and Biegel could give McSorley nightmares up front, while that uber secondary prevents those big pass plays that have powered all of Penn State’s comebacks. Remember that the Lions have been slow starters and great after halftime. This defense might not allow that. The good news for Franklin is the Wisconsin offense might not put up so many points that the game is ever out of reach. But I see the Badgers winning a close, entertaining game, with that defense keeping McSorley and Barkley relatively in check.
Wisconsin 27, Penn State 20