During the nightmare which was Penn State’s trip to the Big House, there were very few bright spots from the Nittany Lions’ perspective.
The run defense wasn’t one of them.
Michigan ran for 259 yards on the ground, including three players who ran for 50 yards or more. Leading the pack was Karan Higdon, the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher.
When they face Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor Saturday, the Nittany Lions will face the only tailback in the conference with more impressive stats than Higdon.
“Not only is he going to be able to get four to six yards a carry but he also has the ability to go 70 behind that offensive line,” James Franklin said. “They are going to try to establish the run. That’s who they are. They are going to run the ball.”
Taylor leads all Big Ten rushers in most offensive categories. In fact, he is the only player in the conference to have accumulated more than 1,000 yards, gotten more than 200 touches and found the end zone more than 10 times.
He’s the catalyst for the offense of a team which, like Penn State, saw its preseason aspirations washed away with gutting losses.
But his offensive line — which includes three NFL-quality players in Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards — is just as vital to the success of the offense.
“They’re big up front, physical up front,” defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said. “They like to run the ball. In continuing to study them, we’ll get more tips and tricks. Wisconsin is who they are. They’re always a good team, they’re always a contender to go to the Big Ten championship. They’re gonna stick to their identity.”
Taylor has run for exactly 400 more yards than Higdon and has earned a shot to be named an All-American as a sophomore, potentially adding to an already remarkable list of accolades.
“I would say he’s probably got the best combination of body type, balance, vision, speed,” Franklin said. “We’ve gone against some guys that you know are going to get you the tough yards… We’ve gone against some guys that can take it the distance. But it’s hard to find a guy that can do all those things.”
Facing run-first teams with talented halfbacks on back-to-back weeks is no easy task, especially at this point in the season. Franklin has referenced a few times the fact Penn State’s defense has been tired in recent games due to playing a ton of snaps.
But the Nittany Lions still believe they’re equipped to stop — or at least contain — Taylor.
“I’ve been saying for a long time, I think we’re really talented as a defense,” safety Garrett Taylor said. “I think you’ve got to look at guys like Shareef [Miller], Yetur [Gross-Matos], Kevin [Givens], our front seven are playing really well right now.
“I think it’s going to start up front and I think our guys are going to do a great job of giving Wisconsin hard looks,” Taylor added.
In addition to those players mentioned, Penn State has gotten reasonably decent production out of most of the defensive linemen its rotated through the front four this year.
The unit is currently tied for the conference lead in sacks, but defending the run has been a different story. The Nittany Lions allow an average of more than 170 rushing yards per game, fifth-worst in the Big Ten.
Kent State has been the only team not to reach the century mark in rushing against Penn State, and the Nittany Lions have allowed an opponent to gain more than 220 yards on the ground four times.
“On the D-line, we hold ourselves accountable, a lot,” Shelton said. “Coach [Spencer], he’s our coach, but when it comes to the little things he doesn’t have to police us in that. If I’m not getting it done, I know that someone else on the d-line, they’re not gonna hesitate to be like, ‘Yo, you gotta pick it up, we need you.’”
Considering the team has struggled to contain the run at times this season, paired with the fact Penn State has been visibly worn down in recent games, Brent Pry’s defense doesn’t match up well with the Badgers.
“In the Big Ten, you’re gonna get a big, physical o-line pretty much every week,” Shelton said. “That’s just the name of the game. Wisconsin, they look like trees up front, they come out of their stance very low, very physical, and they play to the whistle. They’re a group that has to be respected.”
Many people likely circled this matchup on the schedule prior to the season, and both teams would’ve expected this game to have a hand in deciding who would be playing in the Big Ten title game.
Instead, the programs are playing mostly for pride.
But for as difficult as this matchup will be for the defense, there are benefits which stretch beyond this weekend.
“Like always, it’s going to start and end up front,” Franklin said. “Our defensive line has a tremendous challenge against their offensive line, and then I think the experience that we have gained with Jan [Johnson] and Micah [Parsons] and guys like that, I think is really valuable.”