PSU will need complete game

Welcome to Madison, Penn State’s bowl venue for 2013.

Don’t tell the NCAA that: It may swoop down with more sanctions.

So let’s just say it’s the final game, and a chance to end the season on a positive note.

Whether the Nittany Lions can pull the curtain down in the same fashion that they did a year ago, beating Wisconsin in overtime, is highly doubtful.

In fact, the oddsmakers have installed Penn State as a 24-point underdog, the largest underdog spread in school history, which is well before Danny Sheridan was in diapers.

Having arrived at the midway point of their four-year NCAA probation, and actually having the scholarship reductions reduced for good behavior, Penn State has endured while generally staying competitive.

Excluding the blowout loss at Ohio State, and the befuddling effort at Indiana, the Lions have been in every other game. And given their situation, not to mention being guided by a freshman quarterback, it’s tough to reasonably expect a whole lot more for the time being.

Despite facing a likely 6-6 record later today, Bill O’Brien ran down many of the positives of this season earlier this week.

And it’s difficult to dispute that the Lions have shown flashes in the passing game, despite a freshman quarterback who appears to have the makings of a star. They have caught the ball decently, showcased a stud in Allen Robinson, involved the tight end, run the ball at times extremely well and protected Christian Hackenberg to aid in his development.

They’ve also minimized mental mistakes in that they’re the least penalized team in the Big Ten at 32 yards per game.

What they haven’t done is defended consistently well, kicked efficiently, protected the ball well enough (20 fumbles) and certainly not covered via special teams.

They have not played well on the road at all, giving up an average of 37 points per game, and they really haven’t played a complete game all year.

If Penn State plans to be at all competitive today it absolutely must be more stout defensively than it’s been most of this season – certainly all of this season away from Beaver Stadium.

Linebacker Mike Hull believes that’s possible.

Hull said since halftime at Minnesota, when the Lions were lost covering the tight end and allowed 24 points in falling behind 24-10, improvements have been made.

He traces allowing just three defensive touchdowns over the past 10 quarters to defensive coordinator John Butler’s “passionate” speech at halftime against the Gophers.

“That got us going, and we’ve taken that speech to heart,” Hull said. “I definitely think we’re more confident, and we put it on ourselves to play with more pride.”

They’ll need it against a Badger team that only lost in Columbus by a touchdown (31-24 vs. Lions’ 63-14 debacle there) and is within a botched late-game game-winning field goal scenario that could have beaten Arizona State of being 10-1.

So in addition to trying to prove they can play harder on the road than they have so far this year, the Lions would like to take a feel-better vibe into the offseason. After all, 7-5 with a win in your last game is way better than 6-6.

“It’s been an up-and-down year,” Hull said, “but I think we’re setting up for the future.”

O’Brien and his staff appear to be recruiting well, and the second-year coach asserted that he believes the program’s foundation is “on solid ground.”

As the 2013 season draws to a close, avoiding a blowout and hanging with a Badger team that clearly is the second-best opponent on Penn State’s schedule would be an encouraging sign.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or