— Story by PSU Insider Brian Tripp @
Tonight, #7 Penn State and #6 Wisconsin meet in the Big Ten Championship Game. Two months ago, no one would have predicted this unlikely matchup. It’s the Nittany Lions first-ever berth in the conference title game and Penn State has won eight consecutive games to finish regular season play at 10-2.
After the latest College Football Playoff Rankings, speculation continues as to whether the Nittany Lions or Badgers can leapfrog Michigan and a one-loss conference champion to compete for a National Championship. The College Football Playoff committee has demonstrated in each of the first two seasons of this championship format that rankings prior to championship weekend are misleading. The committee reevaluates each team before making final selections based on a complete body of work. However, a Washington or Clemson loss greatly benefits both teams playing in Indianapolis on Saturday night. With a win, Penn State’s resume will be extremely impressive. Penn State would hold victories over the #2 and #6 team in this week’s rankings with a pair of top 25 losses. The Nittany Lions won the toughest division in college football and would be Big Ten Champions. With Michigan’s late season slide, Penn State undoubtedly would jump the Wolverines in the committee’s rankings. If not, fans should be extremely upset. If Penn State wins the Big Ten, but Clemson and Washington both capture conference crowns, Penn State’s resume and strength of schedule merits consideration from the playoff committee but the Pittsburgh loss in September could doom the Lions.
1. Eliminate Mistakes – Wisconsin’s defense creates a lot of turnovers. The Badgers lead the country in interceptions and put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Trace McSorley has 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions over his last eight games. Much of Penn State’s success can be attributed to playing effective complementary football by avoiding mistakes and capitalizing on good field position. Any deficit could be devastating against the Wisconsin defense, which has held opponents to 20 points or less in regulation in every game this season. If Penn State can avoid a defensive score or a bad turnover in its own territory, its offense should be able to outscore Wisconsin’s.
2. Red Zone Touchdowns – Wisconsin’s red zone defense is exceptional, allowing opponents to cross the goal line on only 42% of trips inside the 20-yard line. Penn State has scored just five touchdowns in their last 12 red zone visits. If the Nittany Lions can finish drives against the Badgers, they’ll be in good shape. Wisconsin will make Penn State earn every yard, as the game pits the Big Ten’s best big play offense against a defense allowing the second fewest big plays in the conference. While first team all-Big Ten kicker Tyler Davis is a major advantage for the Nittany Lions, touchdowns win games.
3. Win Special Teams – Davis’ effectiveness could ultimately decide a Big Ten Championship. I would not be surprised if this game is decided on field goals. In fact, Penn State held Michigan State to four field goal attempts from inside the red zone last weekend. However, Davis is only a small part of the equation. Penn State’s special teams units need to be effective to control field position. Blake Gillikin, Joey Julius, Miles Sanders, John Reid and Greg Garrity all have significant roles in this game.
4. Establish the Run – Despite Trace McSorley’s impressive passing statistics against Iowa and Michigan State, teams will still focus on making Penn State a pass-only offense. With Wisconsin’s ability to control time of possession by running Corey Clement, Penn State needs to find an answer on the offensive side. At some point, McSorley and Barkley will need to prove effective on the ground to help the Lions’ defense rest against Wisconsin’s physical attack. Even with Penn State’s front seven depth and rotations, the defense must find a way off the field and Penn State’s offense can be its best defense by establishing a rushing attack.
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Trace McSorley – Wisconsin’s defense will focus on slowing Saquon Barkley. Plus, Barkley’s health remains a question mark, despite the team’s insistence he is entirely healthy. McSorley has successfully engineered the Penn State offense and improves each week. He again is the key for Penn State to claim the championship.
Penn State 24 Wisconsin 17 – Penn State overcomes a sluggish start and connects on enough big plays to defeat Wisconsin and win the Big Ten Championship. On paper, Wisconsin is probably the better team with one of the nation’s top defenses. And defense wins championships, right? Not this weekend, Penn State proves doubters wrong every week. This week is no different. The Nittany Lions’ special season continues in front of a rowdy crowd in Indy.