Big Ten

Big Ten Championship Game pits explosive Penn State offense against elite Badgers defense

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USA TODAY

Big Ten Championship Game pits explosive Penn State offense against elite Badgers defense

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.

[MORE: Previewing the Big Ten Championship Game on the Big Ten Talk Podcast]

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.

X-factors

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.

Question marks

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.

Prediction time

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

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?