Back in August, the Badger’s mid-November visit to Beaver Stadium looked to be one of the games of the year. However, three losses by each team have knocked both from the rank of contender. Wisconsin still has a path to Indianapolis, albeit one requiring quite a bit of help, but the Nittany Lions are left with just a shot at three straight 10 win seasons for the first time since the early-80s.
We are discussing that and more in our weekly roundtable preview:
For the second time in as many trips to Ann Arbor, the Nittany Lions walked away with a thorough beatdown at the hands of Michigan. Two years ago, the entire Big Ten schedule remained, and Penn State rallied for a Big Ten title. With just three games remaining, and no championships on the line, just where do James Franklin and this team go from here?
Craig: Not to be cliche, but there’s still a lot to play for. Closing out the season with three wins would give Penn State a shot for at least 10 wins for the third consecutive season. That hasn’t happened in State College since 1980-82. I’m also sure Trace McSorley doesn’t want to be known as a guy who just folded to wrap up his senior year.
John: The ideal scenario is 9-3 at this point, but they need to regroup this weekend in order to do so. Franklin and his staff face the tough task of getting the players up for a noon game, and one that was a huge game on the schedule not all that long ago. We’ve seen Penn State teams in the past look like they were going through the motions to get to the end of the season and it’s on the staff to prevent that from happening.
Matt: This is uncharted territory for James Franklin in his nearly five seasons at the helm. With no title or major bowl game in the offing, the challenge for him and his staff is to avoid complacency and playing out the string. It’s also a crucial time to get some not insignificant experience for plenty of young players that will be the backbone of this program going forward. Ten wins is still in the cards, but not if the team is feeling sorry for themselves.
If there was one positive to take away from the 42-7 loss last weekend, it would probably be the overall play of the defense. They weren’t great, but they kept Penn State in the game for nearly three quarters before running out of gas. What has been the biggest improvement on that side of the ball from week one until now?
Craig: I believe Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor are playing their best football of the year. Windsor has been hit with some tough penalties, but the duo have been holding their own against some tough offensive lines. Other major improvers since the opening game are Micah Parsons (please play him more), John Reid, Garrett Taylor, and Jan Johnson.
John: I think this defense has improved all over for the most part, but really think the run defense tops that list. Early in the season, Pitt and Illinois were two teams that gashed them early before they made adjustments. Michigan was still able to move the ball, but the sheer volume of plays the defense has played is taking its toll and the biggest concern heading into this weekend.
Matt: It is undoubtedly the defensive line. as Craig alluded to, the play of the first team tackles has become much more consistent, and Yetur Gross-Matos has begun turning into the player we all expected when he committed to Penn State. Reid has really turned it on since some early season struggles as well. His re-emergence has really solidified the secondary.
Looking at Wisconsin, they could probably be considered Michigan lite on offense. They don’t throw the ball much, especially with Alex Hornibrook out, and want to control the game with Jonathan Taylor and Co. Do you think Brent Pry’s defense can draw on the successes they had vs. Michigan last week?
Craig: Just in general, Pry has fared pretty well against run-first teams with questionable passing games. Two of his unit’s best games of the year were against Pitt and Iowa. Even though Wisconsin has the best offensive line, by far, he’ll have a solid game plan to keep the Badgers contained.
John: You know what you’re going to get vs. Wisconsin, as Nick pointed out in his article Thursday. It’s on the front seven to slow down the Badgers rushing attack and you’ll need to make them beat you through the air.
Matt: Obviously the first key with the Badgers is to slow down Taylor and the running game. Where Penn State can have a lot of success, I think, is selling out to stop the run, especially with Hornibrook questionable, and the general lack of a downfield passing attack. If the defense plays like it has of late, they should have more success on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, Penn State’s offense gets a bit of a reprieve facing a Badger defense that is not as good as past years, nor as stifling as the last three opponents. Is this the week that the Nittany Lion offense can find a bit of the rhythm they have lacked since the Ohio State loss?
Craig: Wisconsin’s defensive line generates next to no production. Penn State should be able to open lanes in the run game and keep McSorley/Tommy Stevens protected pretty well. The Badgers will also be without DT Olive Sagapolu, by far their best lineman.
John: Wisconsin’s defense was a big question mark heading into the 2018 season and they haven’t really answered that question. For awhile now we’ve been looking for that game where they get back into rhythm. I believe that they will put up some points, but not before they shoot themselves in the foot a few times.
Matt: On paper, this certainly looks like a matchup for the offense to have some success, especially with Sagapolu out. With cold, blustery conditions forecast, and questions about McSorley’s health, now is as good a time as any to get the rushing game back on track with Miles Sanders. The Badgers’ 84th ranked S&P+ rushing defense ought to help too.
Going into the season, this looked like a late-season matchup between two title contenders in the Big Ten, but both are far from that now. Add in some true Big Ten weather in the forecast, a noon kick, and the tailgating lots largely closed, and suddenly this one lacks any true pizazz. What’s your prediction for this one?
Craig: Unfortunately for Lion fans, the white-knuckle games are not done yet. Expect another close home game. Penn State 31, Wisconsin 23.
John: Looking back at Penn State and Wisconsin to start the season, they were two highly ranked teams with major questions. It seemed as if people (myself included) glossed over their potential problems and felt that their strengths could carry them to division titles. That hasn’t been the case for either team and as we whistled through the graveyard, we come to Saturday. I think with the defense improving each week, the offense will be able to generate enough points to prevail. Penn State 33, Wisconsin 20.
Matt: If ever there was a game to pull out the ¯_(ツ)_/¯, this one is it. On paper, Penn State is the better team, but after the 35 point shellacking in Ann Arbor, who knows where the mindset of the Nittany Lions stands. It will probably be sloppy, and frustrating, but home field and talent wins out. Penn State 28, Wisconsin 21.