Penn State needs more out of its offense or the 21st-ranked Nittany Lions might not get much more out of their season.
The team started the year with Big Ten championship and playoff hopes and had averaged 49 points over a 24-3 stretch. But the Nittany Lions have hit a wall with Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) up next.
Penn State (6-3, 3-3, No. 20 CFP) will try to erase last week’s humiliating loss in Ann Arbor where its offense was held to single digits for the first time since 2014.
“It’s going to be very important that we find a way to establish the run game,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “So there’s not so much on the shoulders of Trace McSorley.”
The Nittany Lions averaged 252 yards rushing through the first six weeks of the season and had 200-plus on the ground in nine straight games, dating back to last year. They’ll take to Beaver Stadium on Saturday looking for a spark after averaging just 120 rushing over the last three games.
Running back Miles Sanders has remained diligent. He said the backs paid a visit to the offensive line room this week to let the linemen know they have faith in them.
Franklin does, too.
He’s seen them crack open holes for Sanders, whose patient approach can quickly become big plays — like a 48-yard touchdown sprint through multiple tacklers against Michigan State four weeks ago.
But those chunk runs have been rare, especially as McSorley, the other cog in the two-headed rushing attack, has dealt with a sore right knee.
“Miles has shown that he can be a big-play back in this conference and that he can carry the load and get you the tough yards, as well as the big plays,” Franklin said.
The Badgers have one of those star backs, too. Jonathan Taylor leads the nation in rushing with 151 yards per game and is a critical facet for the Badgers’ slow-burn offensive approach.
The Badgers’ running back group goes beyond Taylor.
Taiwan Deal is an effective backup who can spell Taylor for a series, while Garrett Groshek has turned into the primary third-down back with his ability to run, catch passes and block. Fullback Alec Ingold is also a threat in short-yardage situations. He’s surprised defenses at times this season with clutch receptions out of the backfield.
ONE WIN AWAY
McSorley is one victory away from tying Penn State’s record for wins by a starting quarterback (29).
He’s expected to start despite a right knee injury suffered against Iowa two weeks ago. While McSorley returned to that game and started against the Wolverines last week, he didn’t have the same mobility that helped him seize the program’s all-time yardage record.
“He’s tough as hell and he’s battled through a lot for this team, so we are going to put it all on the line for him,” Taylor said.
Backup Tommy Stevens entered the game last week and scored Penn State’s lone touchdown late. He’s expected to play as well.
From the backend of Penn State’s defense, safety Garrett Taylor has had a good viewpoint for the development of a handful of defensive linemen.
He believes Jonathan Taylor will be running into fierce competition all afternoon.
“They are a talented team up front and he’s a very talented back. But you know, I’ve been saying for a long time, I think we’re really talented as a defense. I think you’ve got to look at guys like Shareef (Miller), Yetur (Gross-Matos), and Kevin (Givens), our front seven are playing really well right now,” Garrett Taylor said.
Miller, Gross-Matos and Givens have combined for 27 tackles for loss.
DOWN A MAN
Wisconsin will play the rest of the season without nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, who was the anchor of the defensive front.
Coach Paul Chryst said the athletic senior had surgery for his right arm injury suffered two weeks ago against Northwestern.
The Badgers will turn to freshman Bryson Williams to replace Sagapolu, joining a line that already had a freshman and sophomore starting. Sagapolu regularly drew double teams that helped free up standout inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly to make plays.