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Wisconsin a fitting curtain call for 2012

November 24, 2012
By Neil Rudel ( , The Altoona Mirror

UNIVERSITY PARK - With the changes coming in the Big Ten by 2014, including presumed realignment of the Leaders and Legends divisions, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was asked earlier this week if he'd like to continue playing Penn State in the regular-season finale.

He said yes.

"Everybody else in the league has got some marquee matchups at the end," Bielema said. "I'd love to protect that in any way, shape or form."

Good for him.

For the Nittany Lions' first 18 years in the conference, they closed with Michigan State. For the last two, since the divisional format was introduced, it's been Wisconsin, which previously alternated between season-finales against Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa.

There's something to be said for an end-of-the-season slobberknocker that in most years - and once Penn State's NCAA sanctions expire - will have a say in who represents the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game.

It wouldn't be fair to Wisconsin if Penn State wound up with Indiana (or Maryland or Rutgers), and it wouldn't be fair to Penn State if Wisconsin wrapped against Minnesota or Illinois (BTW, Tim Beckman: How's the recruiting going?)

Barring a move to 16 teams, at least before press time, the balance of power in the conference still includes the haves (Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, PSU, sometimes Michigan State, sometimes Iowa, occasionally Northwestern) and the have-nots (sometimes Michigan State, sometimes Iowa and usually Northwestern followed by Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois.)

Slot Rutgers and Maryland as you see fit.

The Wisconsin-PSU series has worked well in that it's been evenly matched with the Badgers leading 9-6 (7-6 since the Nits joined the Big Ten). Both teams have won on the other guy's field, in close games and decisively.

Having suffered for the past year, Penn State's players deserve good fortune today, but even more so they deserve the best opponent possible - particularly in the absence of a bowl game.

Maybe further expansion will shuffle the deck at some point, but certainly Wisconsin-Penn State is worth protecting.

It's especially intriguing because both teams traditionally rely on the same style - rock 'em, sock 'em old-school football magnified by the chill predicted for today.

"This is what football is all about: Wisconsin versus Penn State," Bill O'Brien said. "I heard maybe it's going to snow, which would be great ... wouldn't that be great?"

O'Brien's arrival has transformed PSU in that the Lions are now mixing in a sophisticated passing scheme that they will need because it's unlikely they'll be able to jam the ball down Bucky Badger's throat since Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in rushing defense.

On the other side, the Badgers will try to pound the ball. They boast one of the better backs in league history in Montee Ball, are known for cloning NFL linemen and have struggled to replace quarterback Russell Wilson, now the Seattle Seahawks' starter.

Plus Penn State's defense, minus Michael Mauti and perhaps safety Malcolm Willis again, has been vulnerable against the run but more so against athletic quarterbacks like Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez.

It figures to provide plenty of intrigue, along with regrouping from and managing the significant pre-game emotions of sending off the most tortured yet unwavering senior class in Penn State history.

In so many ways, these seniors - regardless of the record - have already proven themselves to be winners if not champions.

But beating Wisconsin, the closest thing to a marquee win Penn State has a chance to claim, would provide an exclamation point.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or

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