As season nears end, Penn State preps for Indiana

As season nears end, Penn State preps for Indiana

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Indiana-Penn State in mid-November.

With no title implications on the line or polls to watch, there's little buzz about a game that's essentially a footnote on the Big Ten schedule.

Just don't tell that to Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien.

Thanksgiving break has arrived at Penn State, but the first-year coach is hoping students and fans already thinking about the holidays can alter their travel plans slightly to cheer on a team playing its final two home games of an unparalleled season. The Hoosiers (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten) visit Penn State (6-4, 4-2) on Saturday.

``I'm not going to beg anybody to come to the game but I'm going to tell them this: This is a team that has been through unprecedented situations,'' O'Brien said. ``So as fans, as students, can we not choose to support them in their last two games, eight quarters of football?

``I think this is a team that's poured its heart and soul into this season.''

As they have all season, the Nittany Lions are playing for pride and a senior class that mostly held the program together in the face of unprecedented sanctions from the NCAA for the school's handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. They would have been a lock for a bowl game this season if the penalties didn't include a four-year postseason ban.

But if any more motivation is needed, O'Brien's crew can use this nugget: a win Saturday would prevent the Hoosiers from getting the six victories needed to be eligible for a bowl game.

Actually, just getting to this point is quite a step forward for an Indiana program that's a perennial Big Ten doormat. Last year, the Hoosiers didn't win a conference game.

Indiana didn't help its cause after getting throttled 62-14 last week by Wisconsin in its home finale. Now the Hoosiers must close out 2012 with two road games, at Penn State and Purdue.

By the time next week comes along, those postseason hopes might have already been blown away like a cold wind gusting through the central Pennsylvania mountains. The Hoosiers have never beaten the Nittany Lions in 15 tries.

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson regrouped his seniors this week for Penn State.

``We just asked our guys, `Are we strong enough to continue to be what we want to be and go back and keep building,''' Wilson said. ``We didn't point a bunch of fingers.''

To have any chance, the Hoosiers defense will have to look more like the unit that held Iowa to 96 rushing yards and one touchdown on 30 carries two weeks ago in a 24-21 win than the one that allowed a whopping 564 yards and seven scores on the ground on 64 carries to the Badgers.

Indiana does have a pair of good defensive tackles in Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr., who are tied for the team lead in sacks with four apiece. Replogle is expected to make his 46th start for the Hoosiers on Saturday, which would set a school record.

For all the attention over the upgrades in the Penn State passing game under O'Brien, the Nittany Lions' running game has quietly gained traction behind sophomore Zack Zwinak, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound bruiser. Zwinak has rushed for at least 100 yards four times in his last six games.

``If we're building our program, this is a good week to see what we've got,'' Wilson said. ``I'm looking forward to seeing it. It's going to be a tough challenge.''

At least Indiana can move the ball, averaging 31 points and 431 yards per game, good for third in the conference in each category.

After struggling the last couple seasons, Penn State's offense has blossomed under O'Brien. Young, once-unheralded players like sophomores Zwinak and receiver Allen Robinson have taken over lead roles, making many fans forget about the offseason defections of tailback Silas Redd (Southern California) and receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) following the NCAA sanctions.

Robinson, who leads the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns (eight) and yards (786), is also on the brink of setting a school record. His next reception will be his 64th of the year, breaking a tie with O.J. McDuffie (1992) and Bobby Engram (1995) for most in a Penn State single season.

Helping the offense of late, too, has been sophomore kicker Sam Ficken, who was maligned by some Penn State followers on social media after missing four field goals in a 17-16 loss at Virginia in Week 2. Of late, he's made 8 of 9, including all three attempts in last week's 32-23 loss at Nebraska. The Indiana native is rolling just in time for the visit from his home-state Hoosiers.

The collective goal of Penn State's underclassmen is to send the senior leaders including linebacker Michael Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich out on a winning note in their final two collegiate games. And they're hoping fans join them in the Beaver Stadium stands.

A visit from Wisconsin rounds out the campaign next week.

``We don't have a bowl game,'' Robinson said, ``but we'd still love the support.''


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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

The pre-draft workout process can be an exhausting journey for players, with so many flights, hotel rooms and NBA arenas that they can all blend in together. Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, though, may have felt a sense of comfort in Washington for his pre-draft workout for the Wizards on Wednesday.

It was just over a year ago that his Michigan Wolverines cut down the nets at Capital One Arena as champions of the Big Ten conference.

"It was good memories, man. Never gets old," he said while glancing around the stadium.

Wagner, 21, will be seeing a lot more of Capital One Arena once he joins the NBA ranks and it is conceivable he ends up in Washington. They hold the 15th pick in the first round and the 44th pick in the second round and Wagner could be within their reach.

Wagner had an impressive workout in Washington and could provide what the Wizards need. He is a big, mobile and can spread the floor. Wagner was terrific at stepping out to hit threes off pick-and-rolls at Michigan and that ability would work well with Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall.

Wagner measured in at just under 7-feet at this month's NBA Combine, fifth-tallest among those who attended. He averaged 14.6 points as a junior this past season and made 39.4 percent of his threes on 4.1 attempts per game.

With three years of college experience and an NBA-ready jumper, Wagner believes he can step right in and help the Wizards.

"I think what we did at Michigan, sharing the ball and playing as a team, very organized basketball, that can help big-time," he said. "It's basically pro basketball I was playing on a different level."

As Wagner will tell you, he is very confident in his abilities. He is comfortable in his own skin and that includes openly discussing his faults. He feels good about his ability to score at the next level. Defense is where he needs to prove himself.

Despite his size, Wagner wasn't much of a rim protector in college. He averaged just a half-block a game as a junior. The Wizards need rim protection badly and he likely would not provide that.

Wagner, though, believes he can bring more to the table defensively than the numbers would suggest.

"I think I've been an offensive guy all of my life, but the more that you mature as a player, you understand that both sides are important. Without defense, you aren't going to play at any level," he said.

"I think the most important thing that I wasn't able to show in college is that I'm able to switch the ball-screen, especially with the way the league is going. Switch on everything and stay in front of guards as a big guy."

Wagner is from Germany and looks up to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is entering his 21st season and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Nowitzki's game has always been built around shooting and, though he developed into a decent shot-blocker in his prime, was never an elite rim protector.

Wagner hopes to follow in his footsteps playing a similar style.

"He was my MJ. He kind of shows you 'okay, this is possible and this is doable.' It's just basketball," Wagner said. "It gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of belief and motivation."

Hear more from Wagner in his one-on-one interview with Chris Miller in our latest Wizards Tipoff podcast. His interview can also be found in the video above:

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Believe it or not, this isn't the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup

Believe it or not, this isn't the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup

In what is perhaps the most unexpected Stanley Cup Final pairing in recent memory, the Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights are going to make history this year.

Either it is going to be the first expansion team to win a title in their first season, or it will be a team looking to end a 27-year title drought for one of the biggest cities in the United States.

But what it will not be is the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup.

Going even farther back than the Capitals last Stanley Cup appearance (1998), the Georgetown Hoyas and UNLV Rebels met in the 1991 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Sin City took the first, and up until now, the only postseason bout between these two cities. The Larry Johnson-led University of Las Vegas squad powered right past the Hoyas in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

[D.C. sports and Second Rounds, I know right?]

Coming fresh off the NCAA title in 1990, UNLV waltzed right to the Final Four before meeting their demise against Duke. It also ended up being the last game for Dikembe Mutombo in a Georgetown uniform.

While in all likely-hood this will not be the final game/ series for Alex Ovechkin rocking the red, it may be his last and only chance for him to play this far into a postseason.

In the past two seasons, Vegas has gone from zero professional teams to having a Stanley Cup contender, a WNBA franchise, and lined up to take over the Oakland Raiders in 2020. 

Now time for the Golden Knights' Cinderella story to come up a little bit short.