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First Look, Game 10: Penn State vs Wisconsin

Penn State will attempt to bounce back from its disastrous performance at Michigan this weekend when Wisconsin visits Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions and Badgers meet for a Big Ten Conference battle Saturday at noon ET.

It’s the 19th matchup all-time between these programs, and their first since a December 2016 showdown in the Big Ten Championship Game. Both teams entered this season with ambitions for a return trip to Indianapolis — site of the conference title game — and College Football Playoff contention.

Neither Penn State nor Wisconsin managed to sustain legitimate playoff  hopes through October, and each enters this contest with three losses.

The Badgers went unbeaten through the 2017 regular season but suffered a mid-September home defeat vs. BYU and fell twice on the road against conference opponents Michigan and Northwestern in October. Penn State entered a Sept. 29 clash with Ohio State carrying a 24-3 record in its last 27 games, but the Nittany Lions have since been beaten three times in five games.

Both programs were top-10 selections in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 Poll. Wisconsin has fallen out altogether, while Penn State plummeted from 14th to 21st following a 42-7 defeat at Michigan last Saturday. The Nittany Lions hadn’t lost by more than four points during a 31-game span that preceded the outcome.

Penn State, carrying a three-game win streak against Wisconsin, approaches Saturday in dire need of a quality rebound. Let’s take a look at the Nittany Lions’ next opponent.

Opponent: Wisconsin
Nickname: Badgers
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (fourth season at Wisconsin; 40-10 record)
2018 record: 6-3 (4-2 in Big Ten)
Last Game: at Rutgers (31-17 win)
Leading Passer: Alex Hornibrook (1,343 yards, 11 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 58.1% completion)
Leading Receiver:
A.J. Taylor Taylor (406 yards and 3 touchdowns on 24 receptions)
Leading Rusher:
Jonathan Taylor (1,363 yards and 11 touchdowns on 208 carries)
Defensive Standout:
LB T.J. Edwards (62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions)
2017 record: 13-1 (9-1 in Big Ten)

All-time series between Penn State and Wisconsin: Tied, 9-9
Penn State’s biggest win vs Wisconsin: 48-7 (2008)
Wisconsin’s biggest win vs. Penn State: 45-7 (2011)

Last meeting: No. 7 Penn State 38, No. 6 Wisconsin 31 (Dec. 3, 2016, held in Indianapolis)

Penn State completed its surprising run to the 2016 Big Ten championship by beating the Badgers in Lucas Oil Stadium. The Nittany Lions rallied to overcome a 21-point second-quarter deficit, outscoring Wisconsin 31-3 during the final 31 minutes of game action. Quarterback Trace McSorley, then a redshirt sophomore, completed 22 of 31 pass attempts for 384 yards and four touchdowns. His scoring strikes went to Saquon Barkley, Saeed Blacknall (twice) and Mike Gesicki. Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton both surpassed 100 receiving yards, while Barkley produced 103 total yards and two touchdowns, including a go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin was led by Corey Clement (207 total yards, one touchdown) and used a defensive touchdown to establish its early advantage. Linebacker Brandon Bell led the Nittany Lions defense with 13 tackles and a sack. Penn State extended its win streak to nine games after starting the season 2-2, punching its ticket to the Rose Bowl.

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Penn State shocked many by winning the 2016 Big Ten title. (Photo: Brad Fedie, 247Sports)

Last meeting at Beaver Stadium: Penn State 24, Wisconsin 21 (Nov. 24, 2012)

Penn State was ineligible for postseason action due to NCAA-imposed sanctions but finished strong in its first campaign under coach Bill O’Brien. The Nittany Lions began 2012 with an 0-2 record but won eight of 10 the next 10 games, capped off by an overtime win against Wisconsin. Penn State trailed, 14-13, entering the fourth quarter but took the lead when Matt McGloin found Jesse James for a 41-yard touchdown. The Badgers answered back when QB Curt Phillips connected with Jeff Duckworth to cap off a game-tying drive in the closing minute. Sam Ficken pushed Penn State in front with a 37-yard field goal on the first possession of overtime. Wisconsin kicker Kyle French failed to match it with an ensuing 44-yard try and the Badgers fell to 7-5.

What the 2018 matchup means

In the grand scheme of things, this game matters a lot less than what most analysts anticipated entering September. Penn State is out of the Big Ten East mix following its third conference loss, while Wisconsin is tied with Purdue in second-place of Big Ten West standings, one game behind a Northwestern team that already beat the Badgers.

The Nittany Lions are coming off arguably the most disappointing performance of James Franklin‘s five-year tenure. After losing twice in three weeks, Wisconsin did little to dispel concerns last Saturday, leading perhaps the worst team in Power Five football (Rutgers), 17-3, entering the final minute of third-quarter action.

Expectations have not been met this autumn in Madison or State College, and frustrations will continue to mount for whichever squad fails to secure a win Saturday.

Penn State would be in excellent position to finish the regular season 9-3 with a win over Wisconsin, as upcoming matchups vs. Rutgers and Maryland seemingly represent the team’s least challenging two-game stretch of its conference schedule. But at this point, it’s difficult to trust what to expect from the Nittany Lions — particularly on offense — and McSorley’s status is questionable to say the least.

A Big Ten title certainly won’t be hanging in the balance at Beaver Stadium. A trip to the Citrus Bowl or Outback Bowl might be.

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