MH: Penn State has had recent issues with the run and the pass. With a wideout unit that can’t consistently get a handle on the ball, the Lions can’t fully rely on a beat-up McSorley to bail out the receivers with his scrambles. The Lions will have to look to Freiermuth more, and frankly should given the sure-handed performances he’s put in for the offense. The PSU line will have to keep tabs on Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards, who has 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and two interceptions on the year. Paul Chryst likes to aggressively move Edwards around, so targeting Freiermuth could help preoccupy him.
Despite Wisconsin’s recent issues, the Badgers feature the fourth-best scoring defense in the Big Ten, surrendering 20.9 points per game. Surprisingly, Rutgers matched its season-high point total against the Badgers with 17 and had only previously scored that many against Illinois and Indiana, which are both toward the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of scoring defense. PSU has an opportunity to get points on the board, but the offensive line will have to show some consistency and the coaches will have to get a run game together by testing out the personnel and perhaps looking beyond Miles Sanders (above).
SC: The Badger defense possesses its usual workmanlike mentality, but it has struggled to replace production lost to the NFL and graduation from its stifling 2017 unit. The linebacker corps makes the Wisconsin defense go, as senior multi-year starter ILBs Ryan Connelly and Edwards are also the top tacklers on the team. Connelly is a Butkus Award semifinalist this year and Edwards was a first-team All-American last year. The Badgers also get significant contributions from junior OLB Zack Baun and senior OLB Andrew Van Ginkel. If the Penn State offensive line can’t get to the second level, the Wisconsin linebackers will be filling holes and making tackles all day.
The front three is struggling without NT Olive Sagapolu who tips the scales at nearly 350 pounds but has unusual quickness and agility for a player that size. Sagapolu was recently ruled out for the season due to an arm injury, leaving two freshmen and a sophomore to learn on the job. DE Matt Henningson became the first freshman walk-on to start a game for the Badgers since at least 1990 and looks like he could eventually become a force up front.
The big difference for Wisconsin this year compared to years past has been an inability to get to the quarterback. The Badgers only have 12 sacks through nine games, with eight coming from linebackers. The lack of pressure from the front three has exerted pressure on an inexperienced and injury-riddled secondary that has used eight different starters over the last four games. Senior SS D’Cota Dixon was first-team All-Big Ten in 2017 and is the only returning starter in the secondary for the Badgers. He is currently fifth on the team in tackles and also has two pass breakups and a fumble recovery this season.
In the Badgers’ recent road losses to Michigan and Northwestern, the secondary wasn’t the problem, however. The Wolverines rushed for 320 yards and only threw for 124 yards, but when you are averaging 6.7 yards per carry, you don’t need to throw much. Northwestern threw three interceptions, but ran 79 plays and rushed for almost 200 yards. Given Penn State’s passing woes in conference play, leaning on the running game seems like the best chance for a victory.