MADISON – Penn State, which defeated Wisconsin in the 2016 Big Ten title game, entered this season looking to return to the top of the East Division after finishing tied for second in 2017.
Those hopes were all but extinguished by back-to-back home losses to Ohio State and Michigan State in September.
After suffering a 42-7 loss Saturday at Michigan, the Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) must recover physically and emotionally before hosting UW (6-3, 4-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday.
“Defensively, they kicked our butts,” Penn State coach James Franklin said after seeing his offense held to 11 first downs and 186 total yards. “Give Michigan credit. They’re a good football team, and we did not play well today.”
Following is a breakdown of the Nittany Lions, who have lost three of their last five games.
PENN STATE AT A GLANCE: Stats, roster, schedule
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Schedule, conference standings, statistics
Departures have hurt this unit. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead left to take over the Mississippi State job and tailback Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki are in the NFL.
Those changes have affected quarterback Trace McSorley, who was hobbled at Michigan by a right-knee injury he suffered one week earlier in a victory over Iowa.
McSorley completed a college-low 5 of 13 passes for 83 yards, with one interception, in the loss.
He enters the week eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (190.1), down from 274.6 yards per game last season, and ninth in efficiency with a 123.1 rating, thanks in part to a completion rate of 52.0%.
Tailback Miles Sanders is dangerous but he isn’t as explosive as Barkley and is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and 94.2 yards per game.
Drops have plagued Penn State’s wide receivers, who are led by freshman KJ Hamler (28 catches, 18.5-yard average, five TDs) and senior Juwan Johnson (21-14.0-1). Johnson did not play at Michigan, however, because of an unspecified injury.
The Nittany Lions have playmakers at all three levels but too much time spent on the field has taken a toll.
Penn State can get after the quarterback and is tied with Michigan for the most sacks in the Big Ten at 29.
Ends Yetur Gross-Matos (seven sacks, 13 ½ tackles for loss), Shaka Toney (five sacks, 7 1/2 tackles for loss) and Shareef Miller (four sacks, 8 ½ tackles for loss) lead the unit.
Freshman outside linebacker Micah Parsons is tied for the team lead in tackles with 51.
Amani Oruwariye (11 passes broken up, two interceptions) and John Reid (eight passes broken up, one interception) are above-average cover corners. Safeties Garrett Taylor and Nick Scott are third and fifth on the team in tackles, respectively. Both have two interceptions.
Yet because Penn State is just 11th in the Big Ten in third-down conversions at 34.2%, the team is last in time of possession at 26 minutes 51 seconds.
In the last three games, Penn State has lost the battle for time of possession by 7:56, 10:36 and 15:52.
Can Penn State, which surrendered 259 rushing yards in the loss to Michigan and is 10th in the Big Ten against the run (172.2 ypg), slow Wisconsin’s ground game and stay off the field?
Hamler is a dangerous returner who averages 26.9 yards on kickoff returns. UW’s Zach Hintze, with 43 touchbacks on 51 kicks, will have to keep the ball out of his hands.
Punter Blake Gillikin (43.0-yard average) has put 13 of his 48 punts inside the opponents’ 20. He suffered a blocked punt for a safety in the victory over Iowa and was also victimized by a bad snap in that game.
Jake Pinegar was 0 of 3 on field-goal attempts of 40 yards or longer but hit from 45, 49 and 44 yards in the victory over Iowa. He has made his last six attempts.
Rafael Checa has recorded only 33 touchbacks on 60 kickoffs and the Nittany Lions are allowing 23.6 yards per return. Can UW, 10th in the Big Ten at 18.7 yards per return, take advantage and spring Aron Cruickshank?