On Saturday the 19th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions will travel to Madison to take on the #16 Wisconsin Badgers in what will be the first-ever Big Ten Semifinal. The winner will ride the Leaders Division bid to take on Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, and the loser will roll the die and land somewhere in a wide range of second- or third-tier bowl games.
Wisconsin approaches the game as the heavy favorite (14.5 as of this writing), with the opening line of 18.5 only a half-point away from representing the biggest underdog Penn State has ever been in a Big Ten matchup.
How much does making the first B16 Championship Game mean to each side? Does Penn State have a chance to pull out a huge upset or are the Badgers sure to dominate, avenging the teams' last meeting, a 45-7 bludgeoning of the home team in Madison?
Hit the jump and myself and Hilary will take a look at the game from both the Penn State and Wisconsin perspectives.
The last time Penn State and Wisconsin met:
PSU @ Wisconsin, Oct 11, 2008: Penn State wins 45-7
It's been two years since these teams have met. The last game was, as mentioned, was a 45-7 beat down administered by the eventual league champion Nittany Lions in 2008. Entering the 2008 season, Wisconsin had been nearly unstoppable at home, having lost only 2 home games during a four season stretch from 2004 to 2007. The impressive streak was snapped just the week before the teams met when Wisconsin lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State. Penn State had star power on both offense and defense, lead by Big Ten Player of the Year 2008 Daryl Clark at quarterback and anchored by the league's best defense, featuring top-10 NFL draft pick Aaron Maybin.
Two years, however, is a long time in college football. Few of Penn State's upperclassmen saw the field that day in 2008. And Wisconsin has resumed it's dominance at home, entering the game on a 15-game home winning streak.
Penn State Perspective by Paterno Ave:
Penn State coming into the game:
#19 Penn State won last week at Ohio State, 20-14, and enters the game at 9-2 on the season with losses to #2 Alabama and #21 Nebraska.
In the vein of my previous "Nittany Lion Turnaround" articles, I'll say that if they had played last week's game ten times, Penn State would have taken it eight times out of ten. Penn State came out with a more aggressive gameplan than they have in years, and the Buckeyes were forced to play out of the element for the entire first half. Ohio State made plenty of mistakes that dashed their chances at a comeback, that's true, but a few small things could have gone Penn State's way to have put the game completely out of reach by the middle of the third quarter. And a win at the Horseshoe can't be understated in importance, especially the week before going into the similarly-daunting Camp Randall Stadium. Penn State won at either last in 2008, but prior to that season the Nittany Lions hadn't pulled out a victory in Columbus since 1978.
I also think that road games offer a significant mental advantage for Penn State right now versus hosting another squad in Happy Valley. In the wake of the scandal, the opportunity for this team to focus on football and then get away from the endless distractions of their friends, family, and other students asking them about what's going on with Joe, with new coaches, with the NCAA, etc., is a real boon that will translate into a better chance of success on the field. Coupled with Coach Bradley's emphasis on installing new schemes to keep the team's focus squarely on football, I think it's possible that the team is actually in as good a place as it has been all season mentally.
What the game means to Nittany Lion fans...
If Penn State were to lose this weekend, I think it would be a rare occasion when fans aren't too disappointed by a loss. Do I want the team to win? Of course I do. Appearing in the Big Ten Championship game would exhilarating. But in the wake of the scandal the outcomes of these games seem a lot more fleeting. Moreover, as much as I think this is a competitive squad, Wisconsin is a great team this year and is two hail mary's away from being in the national title discussion. Only a handful of prognosticators picked Penn State to get to 9 wins before the season (and the scandal). All things considered, losing to this team in Madison wouldn't be some terrible loss...
And if Penn State wins, it would mean far exceeding expectations. Personally I think any more success this season is gravy, but the majority of commentators on this site and from other sources pegged this Penn State team as an 8-win outfit in the preseason. I expected a bit more, but then with the scandal you have to think that the team's morale/psyche could have been completely shattered, which seems to not be the case whatsoever.
Aside from looking at it strictly from a win-loss perspective, however, I think a win on Saturday and the resulting championship game appearance do something much more profound for the Penn State fanbase. The 2011 season will forever be written in history as the season of the scandal. By appearing in the first Big Ten Championship Game, though, at least this team can write a second, if less heralded, entry in the history books. It will give us as fans one permanent, objective bright spot to look back on this season and remember fondly. Wins over Iowa and at the 'Shoe are to be cherished, but being able to have that First Ever Championship Appearance statistic scrolled across the screen many years down the road will be a testament to the solidarity this team showed in the wake of the terrible allegations and resulting dark cloud that they played under.
TL;DR? This Penn State has a lot to gain and not a lot to lose on Saturday.
Prediction for the Game:
First and foremost, Penn State's defense will have to get to work on Saturday. I think Penn State's defense is capable of doing a better job of slowing down Wisconsin's attack than Michigan State or Ohio State, and they are probably going to have to hold Wisconsin to fewer points than those teams did to win. They'll also probably need a big play or two, like the blocked punts those teams were able to force. Penn State defense has smothered Iowa's air attack, they've stopped Ohio State's run attack, and they've played competitively with Alabama in both aspects. They've shown us they are capable of playing at a high enough level to keep it close with Wisconsin, they'll just have to execute this weekend.
On the other side of the ball, however, Penn State is going to need to do better than they have all season, plain and simple. Then they are going to need to have their most complete offensive performance, being aggressive and efficient, to win. And they'll have to do so for for all four quarters, not just for one half of the game a la Northwestern or Ohio State. Wisconsin is too strong and too well-balanced on offense to try and just clamp down defensively in the second half if they are fortunate enough to go into halftime with a lead.
I for one think it's possible Penn State could have their best offensive game. Matt McGloin isn't a superstar, but he's finally the entrenched starter and playing his (conservative) game. Last week Tom Bradley installed the wildcat to keep the team focused on football and to throw something at Ohio State that they could not have prepared for; he's implied that he's going to go in that direction again this week. I wouldn't be surprised to see Curtis Drake with four or five pass attempts out of the wildcat, or see some kind of end-around pass option. The Nittany Lions don't have much to lose here, and bringing out entirely new offensive schemes and playcalls is the kind of risky gameplan that they can exploit in this position to win as a 14.5-point dog.
The Result? I think Penn State is competitive with Wisconsin through the fourth quarter, but with Wisconsin being the more complete and proven team you can't give the Lions the edge. Penn State certainly covers the huge spread, but they lose the game.
Wisconsin wins at home, 34-27.
Wisconsin Perspective by Hilary Lee: