The Big Ten Leaders Division champ will be decided at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday as the #19 Penn State Nittany Lions (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) square off with the #16 Wisconsin Badgers (9-2, 5-2). The winner will earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship game next weekend in Indianapolis, where they will face the #14 Michigan State Spartans.
“You know, anytime you’re completing 80 percent of your pass [sic], 25 touchdowns, three interceptions, he’s about as efficient a quarterback as I’ve seen in a long time.” —Tom Bradley
This will be the best opponent the Nittany Lions have faced since Alabama, back in Week 2. Wisconsin has lost twice this year, to Moo U. and tOSU, games in which they scored 31 and 29 points, respectively. Both losses were decided close to the end of the games. They are, indeed, prolific scorers, averaging 44.8 ppg, good for fifth in the nation. They are susceptible to good defense, scoring well below their average in those two losses plus last week’s win over Illinois by the score of 28-17. Penn State’s scoring defense ranks #3 in the country, allowing a mere 13 points per game.
Up to this point, Penn State’s conference opposition could be described as having “suspect” offenses. There’s no suspicion whatsoever about the Badgers. They are loaded. Junior running back Montee Ball, ranks third nationally with a 133.27 yard average per game and he leads the country in scoring with 16.36 ppg. Ball had 224 rushing yards against Illinois last week. He is a Doak Walker award finalist. His sophomore backup, James White, pounds out 55.45 ypg. (Doesn’t it seem that Wisconsin always has a pair of great running backs?) They’ll be running against the Nittany Lions’ 34th ranked rushing defense. To add fuel to the fire, senior quarterback Russell Wilson, a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award, averages 254.09 ypg in total offense and is ranked #1 nationally in passing efficiency. PSU is #6 in pass defense and #4 in pass efficiency defense, allowing 160 ypg and and efficiency rating of 96.35. Just to keep the defense busy, Wilson is always a threat to run, averaging over 36 ypg rushing.
“Wilson? Wow,” said Tom Bradley at this week’s Penn State press conference, “You know, anytime you’re completing 80 percent of your pass, 25 touchdowns, three interceptions, he’s about as efficient a quarterback as I’ve seen in a long time. Decision making, excellent; everything he’s done for that football team.”
Wilson transferred from NC State for his final year of eligibility, amazingly picking up where he left off with the Wolf Pack.
Senior wide receiver Nick Toon leads the collection of targets for Wilson. His blood lines run Badger red, as his father Al Toon played the same position for Wisconsin and also was a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver for the NFL New York Jets. Sophomore wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and sophomore tight end Jacob Pedersen are steady threats, although the latter had no stats in the Illinois game.
On defense, the Badgers are very good, allowing only 15.91 ppg, good for #7 nationally. Ranking 44th in rushing defense and allowing 135 ypg, they can be tough to run against, and their pass defense excels, ranking 10th in pass efficiency defense and third in total pass defense. Penn State is a measly 95th in passing offense and 110th in pass efficiency. The Badgers rank 7th nationally in turnover margin, averaging one net turnover gained per game. Junior linebacker Mike Taylor has 11 tackles per game, ranking #8, and his sophomore colleague Chris Borland has 10.73, ranking #11 nationally and tied with the Nittany Lions’ Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy finalist Devon Still. Borland also is ranked #11 in tackles for loss, with 1.50 per game.
On special teams, Wisconsin can be special. Abbrederis leads the country in punt returns with an average of 16.93 ypg. However, their punting is not so great and neither are the kickoff returns, for which they rely on James White.
Brett Bielema is a good coach while Tom Bradley is still learning the ropes with respect to being a top man. Last week, the cameras seemed to focus on vignettes of Jay Paterno on the sidelines — we rarely saw a shot of Bradley. Be that as it may, the offense has become more innovating under Bradley’s regime, unafraid to run Twenty-First Century plays, although occasional flashes of the Paterno stubbornness and anal retentiveness are still evident. Bielema, however, has seen the wildcat offense and says he knows how to defend against it. Bradley says he’ll consider some things “maybe we haven’t done in the past” this week at Wisconsin.
Camp Randall is a tough place to win, which brings to mind a Paterno moment in the Bradley press conference. “It’s a good football team,” said Scrap, “They’ve lost two games both one was the last play of the game, the other one is pretty close to the last play of the game. Playing up there, tough place to play, but a great place to play. Exciting. We’ve been to Columbus, the Horseshoe.” I could just hear Joe uttering that sentence.
“So it will be a great place,” he continued, “I know they’re going to play Jump Around. I get it. I’ve been there before. Great college football. Camp Randall. Good thing we’re playing for a championship. So, it doesn’t get any better than that.” What the hell is Jump Around? It is a 1992 song by a stupid hip hop band called House of Pain, which was led at the time by a schmuck called Everlast. OK, sorry. I don’t like hip hop or rap or any of that crap. Wisconsin has adopted this garbage as their audience adrenaline generator, causing the whole house of 80,000+ to rock when it is played.
Silas Redd might be getting some reduced reps once again this week. He was given no contact in practices this week.
The ever tearful Penn State homey Matt Millen will be our second Penn State color announcer in a row on ESPN. Sean McDonough will do the play-by-play and Tom Rinaldi will be our surrogate sideline blonde.
Notice that I haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room, the Penn State scandal. I’ll write about it as necessary elsewhere.I’d like to focus on the game here. However, I shall apprise you that Wisconsin Athletic Director and long-time head football coach Barry Alvarez told Bradley that the Wisconsin fans would “do something” to show their support for the beleaguered Penn State team.
The weather in Madison will be what my 91 year-old mother would call “not too bad”. Wait, I think that’s her maximum rating for anything — there is a very narrow distinction between her “not too bad” (NTB) and “it sucks” (IS) ratings. But I digress. It should be around 49 degrees with about 36% chance of rain around kickoff time, a bit warmer than usual for late fall in Wisconsin. They’re expecting an inch of snow later on Saturday night. Weather shouldn’t be a major factor for either team.
Now, we get to the feature event of the column, the Official Turkey Poop Prognostication, dedicated to all of this Turkey’s extended fowl family who perished for the cause of Thanksgiving engorgement by the masses yesterday. Somehow, I’ve made it through yet another year. Our friendly gamblers are willing to bet that the margin in this game will be two touchdowns and they tab Wisconsin as their money winner. They think a total of 49 points are likely to be scored. Oh, yeah? I think I have to agree with them. Couple a very good defense with a prolific offense with too many weapons to count, against a good Penn State defense with a “suspect” offense (there’s that word again), and I can see a two touchdown margin or more. The only thing that can save Penn State from being relegated to a share of the Leaders Division crown and sitting home next week is the Luck o’ the Irish, which would have to anoint Matt McGloin with mystical powers to leprechaunistically put Wisconsin’s collective nuts in a vise. The Badgers will not be hiding in their holes this week. Take the “under” but only because the PSU offense won’t be doing its share. They won’t cover the spread, either. Wisconsin 34, Penn State 13.