The 20th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions visit ranked Wisconsin Badgers this Saturday, with the winner claiming a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Conference Championship Game against Michigan State on December 3 in Indianapolis.
Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the Penn State football program, and the university at large, the Nittany Lions earned at least a share of the Big Ten's Leaders Division title with last week's 20-14 win at Ohio State. PSU improved to 9-2 on the year and 6-1 in conference, its only league loss coming at home to Nebraska the week prior. The Lions are being coached on an interim basis by Tom Bradley, and they bring a 4-0 road mark into this contest. Going back a bit further, Penn State is 14-4 in regular-season road games over the past four years, and that includes a 12-3 mark against Big Ten foes.
Bradley has handled the recent crisis about as well as can be expected, and he spoke recently about the relationship he has with the players, "I've been totally honest with them. We have a good dialogue going. I don't always give in. But if I feel when they come to me, if there's a situation that they've got a good point...I'm not a dictator; they've got good suggestions, too. It's their team. I'm here to help them be the best they can be. So we work it out what's best for everybody."
Wisconsin owns the same 9-2 overall record as Penn State, but the Badgers have two conference losses, dropping narrow decisions to Michigan State and Ohio State -- both on the road. UW, which won at Illinois last weekend, 28-17, is 18-2 in regular-season games played after November 1 in head coach Bret Bielema's six seasons at the helm, and the Badgers will try to extend their current 15-game home winning streak with a victory this weekend. They have won nine in a row in Madison against Big Ten opponents. Additionally, Wisconsin is looking to complete a 7-0 home ledger for the second straight year, something done only one other time in school history (2006-07).
Keenly aware of what's been happening at Penn State, Bielema knows this important game has additional meaning, on both sides, "From our standpoint, you've got to be oblivious to not understand what's going on there. You feel for everybody involved, and I just want to make sure we do the right thing but also understand this is a very, it's a big stage and an opportunity to know that a lot of eyes will be looking at it."
The all-time series between Penn State and Wisconsin favors the latter, 8-6, although the Lions have won the last two meetings, the most recent being a 48-7 rout in Madison on October 11, 2008.
The Penn State offense is anything but explosive (20.9 ppg), but the unit isn't totally devoid of talent as RB Silas Redd, and more recently Stephfon Green, have had their share of success in helping the Nittany Lions keep pace in most games. Redd has rushed for 1,122 yards and seven TDs this season, while Green has come on in the last couple of games to tally 199 yards and five scores. As for the PSU passing attack, [former] coach Joe Paterno preferred a two-pronged approach to start the season as both Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin split time. More recently however, the job has belonged to McGloin, and while his .542 completion percentage and mere 134.0 ypg aren't going to scare anyone, he has directed the offense more effectively of late. Derek Moye and Justin Brown lead the PSU receiving corps with a combined 70 catches, 1,066 yards and four TDs.
The strength of this Penn State team, and the primary reason it is in position to possibly play for the Big Ten title is the defense. Long known as "Linebacker U.", this year's collection of Nittany Lion defenders are long on talent and you can tell there is a certain amount of pride, particularly in the wake of the recent scandal surrounding the school, the defense takes in keeping the team competitive. Gerald Hodges is the latest in a long line of outstanding linebackers in Happy Valley, and he has amassed 90 tackles on the season -- 24 more than his closest teammate. Add 10 TFL, which includes 4.5 sacks, an INT and two forced fumbles to his stat line and it's easy to see why he is so highly regarded. The Lions are giving up just 13.0 ppg, and the opposition averages only 287.4 ypg of total offense. Another guy to keep an eye on is standout DE Devon Still, as he has 16.5 TFL, including four sacks.
Green rushed for 93 yards and scored a pair of TDs in last week's win at Ohio State, the Lions tallying 239 yards on the ground in averaging better than six yards per carry. The Buckeyes also did a nice job picking up yards on the ground (206), but three sacks and a pair of fumbles cost the home team dearly. LB Glenn Carson led the PSU stand with 11 tackles, while DE Jack Crawford logged two sacks.
Wisconsin has its own star RB in junior Montee Ball, who leads the nation with 30 TDs (only the fifth player in FBS history to accomplish the feat), and he has scored at least twice in every game this season. QB Russell Wilson is also among the best in the FBS, as he currently leads the nation and is on pace to break the NCAA record in pass efficiency (199.3) and yards per play (9.6). Wilson (170-of-231, 2,506 yards, 26 TDs, three INTs), has been exceptionally good at home this year, going 87-of-116 (.750) for 1,415 yards with 13 TDs and no INTs. That equates to a pass efficiency rating of 214.5. Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis rank one-two on the team's receiving chart, combining for 88 receptions, 1,402 yards and 13 TDs. Jacob Pedersen has the most of his 27 grabs by reaching the end zone eight times.
Wisconsin is the only team in the country to rank in the top-10 in both scoring offense (44.8 ppg) and scoring defense (15.9 ppg). The defense has been really strong in yielding a mere 282.3 total ypg (135.5 rushing, 146.8 passing), and the unit has applied considerable pressure in logging 23 sacks and 18 turnovers. LBs Mike Taylor and Chris Borland are both over 100 tackles on the season, and they have a combined four INTs. Borland has more than twice as many TFL (16.5) as his closest teammate (Taylor, 8.0), and DBs Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry have combined for seven picks.
The Badgers trailed 14-0 in the second quarter of last week's game at Illinois, but scored 28 of the next 31 points to earn the hard-fought victory. Ball continued his record-setting season by rushing for a career-high 224 yards and scoring three TDs. Wilson struggled against a stiff wind, throwing for just 90 yards and a score. Borland registered 16 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles for the UW defense, which came up with four second-half turnovers and allowed just 301 total yards to the Fighting Illini.