Big Ten Championship Pits #6 Wisconsin against #7 Penn State
Our surprising Big Ten east division champs #7 Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) will take on the west’s #6 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 7-2) in the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday.
At the beginning of the season, no one expected either team to be a contender for the conference crown.
I decided to write this on Tuesday instead of Monday so I could give it the time it deserved. Still, I’ll pull some stuff right out of my ass, as usual.
A word to the Sanguinarians: Just because you watched PSU shred some second-tier Big Ten defenses doesn’t mean that Wisconsin is a mere bump in the road. I’m amazed at some pretty rational people I know spewing some hypereuphoric pipe dreams about Penn State winding up with a playoff slot. Let’s not put the cart before the proverbial horse. To state it with another pseudo-equine metaphor, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, it’s the Badgers we care about. But I digress — I’m as stubborn as a mule.
Just Horsing Around with Sanguinarians, OK?
As I was saying, Penn State and Wisconsin both were dark horses to get anywhere near the Big Ten Championship this year. Most smart money went with Iowa in the west and either Michigan or Ohio State in the east. Head coaches James Franklin and Paul Chryst deserve heaps of credit for guiding their teams to the top of their respective divisions.
For what it’s worth, some of our colleagues beat a dead horse talking about how we surprised everybody with a win over the Badgers back in 2013. Duh! We were surprised then, but what the hell does that have to do with anything? Let’s slam the barn door shut on that specious argument. It’s 2016 now. Hold your horses, friends!
Penn State is coming off its triumphal 45-12 victory over Moo U., while Wisconsin successfully defended its possession of Paul Bunyan’s Ax against Minnesota, winning 31-17.
Both Penn State and Wisconsin were second half teams last week, as the Badgers had to rally from a 17-7 halftime deficit to come from behind and retain Paul Bunyan’s Ax, while the Nittany Lions were behind 12-10 at the break but won going away. Both defenses seemed to sleep through the first half; both clamped down in the second. Penn State shut out Moo U., as you know, and in the Badgers’ second half Wisconsin intercepted four passes, generated four sacks, forced six straight drives of three plays or less to limit the Gophers to 60 total yards.
There is no excuse for letting the opponent score on every possession, as Penn State did in the Moo U. first half. That suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks. And so, The Second Half Team better play a decent first half, too. Let’s hope these two war horses each play four good quarters in the championship game. Shitcan the sludgy, sloppy, sleepy first halves and jump right into the fray. Make it a barn-burner!
Who’s Who, What’s What, and Badgers, Badgers, Badgers
Run, Bucky, Run
The Badgers are your quintessential run-oriented team. Workhorse senior running back Corey Clement is this year’s Wisconsin stud runner. He’s second in the Big Ten with a 103.6 yards per game average. Clement has had seven 100+ yard games this year, including a season high 164 against Ohio State. He is also a good punt returner averaging 14 yards per return.
Clement runs behind a bunch of bulldozers disguised as offensive linemen. The Badgers’ offensive line averages 304.3 lbs if you count the tight end, and 315.6 if you don’t. This doesn’t portend well for Penn State’s rushing defense, which has been allowing 146.3 yards per game. They cannot afford to miss tackles and chase Clement all over the field, as the Nittany Lion quick-strike offense typically doesn’t give them much of a rest. If they get tired, then look out for the other second-half team!
The Wisconsin QB Situation
We haven’t heard anything straight from the horse’s mouth about the Badgers’ redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s status for the game other than that he is “questionable” with a head injury he suffered in the Minnesota Game. In that game, Horny was replaced with fifth year senior Bart Houston, to no one’s surprise. Houston had lost the starting job to Hornibrook early in the season, but Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst later employed a two-quarterback system, using both guys for the final six games of the season. During that period, Houston was 25-37 for 385 yards with three touchdowns one interception. Hornibrook was 104-179 for 1243 yards, eight touchdowns, and seven interceptions. Verily, handing off to Clement thirty times a game does not require a proficient passer and neither of these guys is all that terrific.
Wisconsin ranks third in the conference in total defense behind Michigan and Ohio State. They are tops in the conference in rush defense and fifth in pass defense. Nationwide, they are third in the FBS behind Alabama and Houston in rush defense, allowing just over 100 yards per game.
Sophomore linebacker T.J. Edwards leads the Badgers in tackles, averaging 6.8 per game. Badger junior linebacker T.J. Watt leads in sacks and TFLs. Wisconsin junior cornerback Derrick Tindal leads in passes defended, while senior safety Leo “Moose” Musso leads in INTs with five. (He’s a moose, not a horse.) Musso is tied for second in this category in the Big Ten behind Malik Hooker of Ohio State. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton, an experienced senior, has another four interceptions this year to put the Wisconsin in the top spot in the conference for pass interceptions, with 21 for the season.
Wisconsin sucks at punting. Behind the questionable fetlock of freshman punter Anthony Lotti, the Badgers average 34.4 yards per punt, second worst in the Big Ten, with Rutgers firmly gripping the bottom rung. Penn State has the advantage here, as John Reid ranks third in the Big Ten in average punt return yards.
The Badgers are second in the conference in turnover margin with +9. Ohio State leads with +16, while Penn State is a respectable +5.
What will it take for Penn State to win this game?
Penn State has elevated its third down conversion percentage to .322, good for 121st place in the FBS. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is third best in the FBS behind Michigan and Southern Mississippi at defending against third down conversions. In the companion statistic, Time of Possession, Wisconsin ranks atop the entire FBS heap, averaging 35 minutes per game. Penn State is a not-so-good 95th, averaging 28 per game. Penn State’s quick-strike scheme works well, just as long as Trace McSorley can hit receivers downfield.
However, with Corey Clement and a huge offensive line like Wisconsin’s playing their possession game and beating the crap out of the defense, PSU’s defenders are going to need a rest. The big play offense doesn’t give them much bench time before they’re right out there on the field again.
McSorley needs to shine.
Trace McSorley needs to be right on the money with his throws, and he needs to get protection from his offensive line in order to make those throws. He’s come a long way this season. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst is mighty impressed after viewing videos of McSorley in action:
“What’s jumped out at me . . . he looks to me like he loves playing the game and he competes,” Chryst said. “He has great energy about him and obviously is talented, makes plays with his arm, makes plays with his feet.
“I liked watching him until this week when we’re getting ready to play him. But he looks like a heck of a quarterback. That’s what we’re doing this week, looking at it and trying to figure out a way to defend him.”
Barkley must get running room, but will he?
The way I see it, Wisconsin’s excellent, third ranked run defense against a raw, piecework offensive line will not allow Saquon Barkley to get umgetrakt, unless he can manage to do it all himself. Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead needs to find a way to give Barkley some running room — if he plays.
Barkley left the Moo U. game after having rolled his ankle in the second half. The usual tight-lippededness pervades the Penn State mouthpieces with regard to injuries, but head coach James Franklin has uttered unofficially that he expects Barkley to play in Saturday’s championship game.
Summing it up.
Wisconsin’s game is based on a successful rushing offense and a stifling rushing defense. The Badgers’ defensive secondary is as good as any Penn State has seen, with the possible exception of Ohio State. Take away the run, take away the long pass, and Penn State is left without much offense at all, struggling to convert third downs and wearing down its own defense by not sustaining offensive drives. If Chryst and staff solve the McSorley long ball, Penn State is in deep shit. Therefore, the Penn State offensive brain trust must take the necessary steps to uncork Barkley’s bottle; if he remains bottled up, the Nittany Lions cannot win.
Who cares? Lucas Oil Stadium is fully enclosed and retractable. But just for completeness, we’re looking at a chilly day in Indy with a high of 37°F and a low of 27°F. Unless they open the roof and the glass panel, it won’t make any difference. The House that Manning Built is an excellent football playing environment. Advantage, both teams.
The Bottom Line
Yes, folks. It is time for the first post-season Turkey Poop Prediction. If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you will have been feeling an anti-Sanguinarian chill in the air. I believe that the Badgers’ well rounded defense will be the difference maker. This is not to deny the possibility that Saquon Barkley shows up 100% healthy for Penn State and somehow, the geniuses of our offensive coaching staff can spring him. I frankly think that’s a lot to ask, and I’m not counting on it.
I’ve been wrong before — many times during this Cinderella season in particular. Unfortunately for Cinderella, the ugly step-sisters keep showing up at inappropriate times. To continue with the annoying equine metaphors, will the Nittany Lions ride off on the white horse with Prince Charming, achieving their metaphorical reward following the repression and annulment of the past five years or will their coach and four turn into a pumpkin and a slew of rats? I bet you’re riding the fence on this one!
Vegas chalks in Wisconsin as a two-point favorite to win this thing, with an over/under of 47. That equates to a 25-22 victory for the Badgers. If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you know that I think the game will entail a defensively oriented, withering first half. Whoever is in better shape emotionally and physically in the second half will win. In the games in which staunch defense frustrated Saquon Barkley, Penn State had to turn to the vertical game. I believe that will be the case again. However, I think the Badgers’ secondary is a cut above what we’ve seen, and I think the Nittany Lions’ inability to convert third downs will come back to bite them. I have to go with Wisconsin, but my heart will be with PSU. Wisconsin 20, Penn State 17. Take the under.
For those who care about such things, ESPN’s College Game Day will originate from Indianapolis outside Lucas Oil Stadium from 10-12 AM ET.
I’ll be back after the game affirms my prediction. If it doesn’t, I’ll be back anyway.