The Nittany Lions look to end their season on a good note this week as they travel to Camp Randall Stadium to take on the 14th ranked Wisconsin Badgers (3:30 ET, ESPN).
Unfortunately, for Penn State (6-5, 3-4 BIG 10) Wisconsin is really good and besides Ohio State it's probably the toughest team on their schedule. The Badgers (9-2, 6-1 BIG 10) present a lot of challenges for a Nittany Lions defense that has struggled a ton this season.
The Nittany Lions defense showed improvement against a very down Purdue ball club two weeks ago and didn't fair too badly against Nebraska last week. However, they face a whole different animal in the Wisconsin offense this week. Basically, picture a red and white freight train lining up in the backfield and taking it to you play after play. Wisconsin running backs Melvin Gordon and James White are the only two backs in the country that are on the same team that have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark.
Gordon has scored 12 touchdowns, while White has 13 on the year and what's even more impressive is their yards per carry average. Gordon averages a video game like 8.2 yards per carry and White chews up 6.5 yards. Simply put, the Penn State defense just isn't deep enough to handle such a big time running attack. To make matters worse for Penn State the Badgers have a pretty good signal caller as well.
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave has used the play action pass to throw 17 touchdowns so far this season along with 2,075 yards. It's pretty much pick your poison with this year's Badgers offense and it's safe to say that based on past performances the Penn State "D" will most likely struggle.
"This is a big challenge. They run the football very well. They're very well coached. They're physical, they're big," said Penn State coach Bill O'Brien. "Gary Andersen has done a good job coming in there and putting his style of play and putting his mark on that program right away. These are two good running backs; guys that have each gained a lot of yards. Our guys will be there in Wisconsin on Saturday. That's what I will tell you."
Something that might help the NIttany Lions out a little more this week is the fact that it's Thanksgiving break. Meaning, there is no classes and the players can focus 100% of their attention on the Badgers. That's something that Penn State will certainly need to do, but according to Las Vegas odds makers it really doesn't matter how the Nittany Lions prepare. They have PSU as a 24.5 point underdog. 20-point spreads against the Nittany Lions football program is not something that happens very often.
"You know, I'm aware that we're probably an underdog. We're 6-5, and they're 9-2, but I didn't know it was a 20 point underdog," said O'brien. "That's not bulletin board material for us right now. If somebody from Wisconsin came out and said we're going to beat these guys by 24 points, then maybe we'd use that, but we're certainly not worried about Vegas."
The Nittany Lions will also have their hands full with the Wisconsin defense. The word to best describe the Badgers "D" this season is stout. They run a 3-4 base defense with a monster in the middle in 330-pound Beau Allen, so it won't be easy to run the ball up the gut later today for PSU. Also linebacker Chris Borland is a really good player for Wisconsin. O'Brien mentioned in his weekly press conference that he's a lot like PSU standout linebacker Glenn Carson, which means Borland certainly has a motor. He has 92 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, and four sacks this season.
As a defensive unit the Badgers give up just 278.9 total yards per game. They give up just under a 100 yards on the ground per game and 179 passing yards per game.
"They're very stout. I think there's been six games where they haven't given up a touchdown. But, they play a 3-4 look, which is tough," said O'Brien. "They have two good outside backers that set the edge really well, and then Borland, another guy on the inside. He's what you're looking for in a linebacker. A lot like our guy, Glenn Carson, just a tough, tough dude. They come up and tackle you as a defense. If a run breaks to the second level, they'll tackle you for a three yard gain instead of a 10 yard gain. So, I think they do a lot of things well."
A bright spot the last few weeks for the Penn State offense has been running back Zach Zwinak. Zwinak has rushed for 448 yards and four scores in his last four games. That's good for an average of 149 yards per game over the last three games. Zwinak has rushed for 874 yards and 12 touchdowns and will be looking to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season.
It will be vital for the PSU offense to put some points on the board to keep Penn State in the game. Christian Hackenberg (2,616 yards passing, 16 TDS) and Allen Robinson (1,310 yards receiving, six TDs) will need to continue to have success and Zwinak's backfield mate Bill Belton (796 yards rushing, five TDs) must also use his speed and versatility to make some big plays.
With only one game left this season, it's my job and my prerogative to look to the off-season and even next season. The future is key for Penn State and a win against the Badgers could sway one or two more big time prospects Bill O'Brien's way.
Speaking of big time prospects, something for Nittany Lion faithful to keep their eye on is the recruitment of five-star defensive back Jabril Peppers. Peppers is currently verbally committed to Michigan, but he recently announced via Twitter that he's going to take some more official visits. With the NCAA lessening the scholarship sanctions and rumors of the bowl ban being lifted, Peppers might very well take a trip out to Happy Valley. Definitely keep your eye on that story.
As noted, the Badgers are a 24.5 point favorite later today. I think they'll win, but not by 24.
My pick is Wisconsin 40, Penn State 24.