Lions facing big challenge
Five things to look for as Penn State tries to finish the season with a winning record and overcome being a 24-point underdog against No. 14 Wisconsin.
No. 1: Stop the run
Yeah, good luck with this one. Wisconsin will run the ball, and run some more, and run some more. The Badgers have one of the top ground games in the country, and there’s virtually no chance Penn State will be able to completely shut them down.
The real key actually is to not get run over.
Usually when PSU gives up 200 yards on the ground, that’s a bad day. It would be a good accomplishment against Wisconsin, which averages 298 rushing yards per game.
Melvin Gordon has 1,375 yards and averages an astounding 8.2 per carry. James White has 1,281 yards and averages 6.5 per carry.
Both backs are very good, but it helps immensely that they’re running behind an offensive line that averages a hefty 321 pounds, bigger than some NFL O-lines.
The Nittany Lions’ defensive line must find a way to compete in the trenches and get help from the linebackers and D-backs helping out in the box. They also must wrap up and tackle well and not let Wisconsin’s bruising backs turn short bursts into big gains.
All of this is much easier said than done, which is a big reason why Wisconsin is favored by 24 points.
No. 2: Move the chains
This is a classic example of a game in which PSU needs to keep its offense on the field. Make each drive count by picking up first downs and try to wear down Wisconsin’s defense before the Badgers can do that to the Lions.
Zach Zwinak had a big day last year against Wisconsin, rushing for 179 yards, and this is the kind of rugged, physical opponent he seems to enjoy playing. He needs 126 yards to reach 1,000 for the second straight season.
If PSU is going to have success on the ground, it’s probably going to come with the bulldozing Zwinak as opposed to the shifty Bill Belton, who takes a lot of big hits.
Again, getting things going on offense will be easier said than done because Wisconsin allows only 13.4 points per game, fifth best in the nation.
No. 3: He’s no hack
Joel Stave doesn’t get much credit because Wisconsin’s running game is so good, but he’s a quality quarterback who’s capable of shredding PSU’s suspect secondary.
Stave averages only 189 yards passing per game, but he’s efficient (63 percent) and productive (17 TDs, nine interceptions). He also has the second-best receiver in the Big Ten at his disposal in Jared Abbrederis (61 catches, 916 yards, 7 TDs).
This is a potent Badger offense on the ground and through the air, and if they score fewer than 30 points it would be a banner day for the Penn State defense. Just don’t count on that.
No. 4: He’s no Hack, either
This is the last time we’ll see an 18-year-old Christian Hackenberg play quarterback, and he’s performed very well as a true freshman, even though he’s only 18 years old.
He’s much more mature and poised than a typical 18-year-old freshman. He’s handled the responsibility of being a team leader better than a typical 18-year-old. But he’s also shown some of the inconsistency one would expect from an 18-year-old.
Did we mention he’s only 18 years old?
It seems like that fact has been brought up about 1,000 times this season, but don’t worry, the phrase will be retired after today. Next year he’ll just be Christian Hackenberg, sophomore quarterback.
Today, he just needs to be a quarterback who can complete third-down passes at an efficient rate and make good throws in the red zone, two areas he’s struggled with most of the season.
No. 5: Player to watch
Enjoy watching receiver Allen Robinson because the best receiver in Penn State history very well could be done after today as he could declare early for the NFL draft.
Robinson needs 11 catches to reach 100 for the season, and you know Bill O’Brien would love to get him to that milestone. It creates a bit of a dilemma, though, because the tight ends have been more effective lately, so targeting them more would seem to be a better strategy to stay close.
If things get out of hand in the second half, every effort probably will be made to get the ball in Robinson’s hands on quick-hitters.
Did you ever think you’d see a Penn State receiver catch 100 passes in a season? From a freshman quarterback, no less? It would be a remarkable accomplishment from a fantastic college player.
Prediction: Wisconsin 33, Penn State 13
Follow Giger’s live updates during the game on Twitter @CoryGiger.