In true Midwest fashion, the Off Tackle Empire staff decided to get together and indulge in a mega-potluck to preview this year’s Big Ten Championship Football game. It was so packed that we had to break down the questions into two pieces. Up first, we explore how the Wisconsin Badgers and Penn State Nittany Lions got here, and look at what each team brings to the table. At noon, we’ll go into the nuances of the coaching, the College Football Playoff implications, and some #BoldPredictions.
LPW: I thought PSU was a year or two away from this, but kudos to Franklin for defying our site’s cruel commenter consensus he’s overrated clownfraud trasch. The OSU win not only IMHO saved his job but paved his way to the championship, surprisingly.
As for Wisconsin, I figured Iowa would regress and no one else in the west would be able to handle them.
Graham: For PSU, the improved line needs to be discussed, because the OTE running joke involved a scarecrow and traffic cone as the PSU line...So when it looked like the Nittany Lions could actually pass block and run block at a better-than-mediocre level, you knew Penn State would be improved. Not knock-off-OSU improved, but improved.
As for U Dub, surviving Iowa in the annual 10-6 or 17-9 etc etc game was the turning point for me. That meant UW would be home against Nebraska (winnable) and face a relatively easy schedule going forward. Should be some mention of how amazing Wisconsin’s LB play has been, also, because my goodness.
Townie: Penn State didn’t actually win the East, Michigan and OSU derped their way out of it. If they had just finished a couple of games, then OSU is the East winner by a mile. This is what happens when good teams have major let-downs. I mean, how could POTY Peppers let Iowa beat Michigan? For crying out loud?
I honestly didn’t think it would happen. Penn State still has a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball. Our offensive line play is atrocious. We are playing true freshmen and RS freshmen all over the field. Our best offensive lineman and linebacker are done for the year. I can point to few games, where Penn State came out and looked dominant. No, we backed into this game, as most fans will gleefully point out.
GF3: With apologies to the PSU fan base, I don't think PSU ever made that statement. PSU beat Ohio State. That is undeniable. It also happened in what is the most statistically improbable fashion. That doesn't make it not a win, but it makes it not a statement. That's really the crux of why we are where we are, vis-a-vis the CFP committee and the fact that Michigan and OSU are above either championship contender. Wisconsin is a good team, but they also lost to the two best teams in the stronger division. That's all to say that this championship game is a result of the B1G system as much as anything. Some years back I argued that a divisional system wasn't worse than round robin. In my own stubborn fashion I didn't yield to arguments by folks like Mochila who pointed out the flaws that could lead to a scenario we are currently living. I was wrong then, and now I'm hoisted by my own petard. In summary, the moment these teams made a statement was the moment we realized that one division loss would be the only part of the resume that really mattered.
Stew: I’m not entirely sure there was every a specific statement game. Seemed more like a slow evolving of the picture. However, if forced to choose, I would say it was mostly decided when Wisconsin beat Iowa and when PSU beat OSU. Especially with the later, PSU just had to hold serve against some weak competition after that game.
BRT: Do you mean the moment the fans made a statement, or the teams did? After beating OSU, Penn State’s fans declared themselves #BACK, so I guess that was the moment. I guess that has to be the moment for the football team too, because they didn’t really have any big games after that. The stomping of Iowa was impressive enough in hindsight, but at that point, Iowa still wasn’t showing any signs of life, so it didn’t seem like a huge deal at the time. Actually, their real moment might have been Michigan losing to Iowa. As for Wisconsin, I think that that happened in OOC play--namely, when Iowa lost to NDSU and forfeited their “favorite in the West” status, and Wisconsin beat LSU and took over the expectations.
Aaron: The three-game stretch that was Minnesota, Maryland, and Ohio State was one that progressively raised expectations for Penn State fans. After the close, come-from-behind win over the Gophers, it looked like James Franklin might keep his job. The win over Maryland made it seem like a bowl game was in the cards. When Penn State beat Ohio State, suddenly anything seemed possible. The Lions would be favored in all of their remaining games and could sneak into Indianapolis if someone else slipped up. That Ohio State game was clearly the statement for Penn State, since before that the goal was just to make a bowl game.
Wisconsin also had more than one big win throughout the season, but its loudest was the season-opening triumph over LSU. That game put the Badgers on the map after most fans assumed that they would start the season 0-1 and struggle through a gauntlet of a schedule.
Thumpasaurus: Hey now, wait a second. You don’t have to live up to some arbitrary standard of greatness to be the divisional champion. You just have to be good enough to win it as the rules define, which means you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get should the superior teams screw up. I didn’t believe Penn State was good enough to do so until they beat Ohio State. If they played again on a neutral field, Ohio State would win. They’d been pushed to the brink at Wisconsin the prior week and played a very prepared Penn State team in yet another prime time night game on the road. Penn State, however, proved they were good enough to take advantage of Ohio State’s weakness.
As for Wisconsin, the non-conference eliminated everyone but them and Nebraska. It really made a statement that they gave Michigan the biggest challenge they encountered in Ann Arbor all year, but they became the West champions by beating Nebraska. Minnesota was never going to do it, even if Mitch Leidner hadn’t grabbed Paul Bunyan’s axe and started hacking away at his own team with it in the second half.
Ted: For Penn State, it was the OSU game. Up until that game, the saying was ‘the next big game James Franklin wins will be his first’. They were thoroughly outplayed, yet found a way. After getting beat by Pitt, I just shrugged my shoulders and thought ‘same old Franklin coached team’, but they overcame adversity, got healthy, and went on a roll.
As to Wisconsin, I thought they were the team to beat in the West, and it was after the losses to OSU and Michigan, I thought they were capable of winning the conference. It sounds odd saying they made a statement in two losses, but they went toe to toe with what a lot of people think are two of the top five teams in the country, against superstar coaches and rosters full of more recruiting stars than a typical galaxy. Two or three plays either way in those games, and they’re the Big Ten team guaranteed a playoff spot right now.
Speth: In all honesty, I'm not stunned Wisconsin’s representing the West. I figured it'd take one out of 3 from the East and if they could manage to run the table in the West they'd win the division. I felt really good about it once Wisconsin took Michigan and Ohio State to wire after killing MSU (not ending up meaning much nonwithstanding, we didn’t know MSU would be garbage at the time) Would I have put money on it? No. That said I'm 1000000 times more surprised Penn State won the East with a little help from the shitbirds in Iowa City. I never had any belief that they'd win the division right up until Curtis Samuel ran it in untouched and I couldn't be happier.
Townie: There is no question that Wisconsin has a powerhouse defense. It’s the #2 Scoring Defense and the #3 Total Defense in the B1G. They’ve held opponents to just 100 yards rushing per game (on average) and given up just 7 rushing touchdowns. They give up just 191 yards passing per game (on average) and allowed just 8 passing touchdowns. They’ve racked up 21 interceptions this year, led by Leo Musso (5), Soujourn Shelton (4) and D’Cota Dixon (4). They are the best ball hawks in the B1G…even better than POTY Jabrill Peppers! They also have 9 forced fumbles as a team.
That front seven is also insanely talented. That’s why they are ranked #1 in Rushing Defense in the B1G. You watch Edwards, Watt, Cichy (before he got hurt), Connelly, Dooley, and Biegel play. Those guys are iconic Big Ten defensive football players. Smashmouth, run-stuffing, kill-the-man-with-the-ball players. This is a far better defense than anything Penn State has faced this year.
This will be the best matchup in the game. Penn State’s emerging offense against a brick wall defense. If Wisconsin is going to win the game, this will be where it happens. Wisconsin’s offense isn’t going to put up a ton of points. The defense will have to shut down Penn State’s offense.
GF3: Defense, defense, defense. The Badger defense is composed of a bunch of talented hybrid players thanks to the strong Eau d’Aranda that still surrounds the program. They've had some lapses against strong run attacks--as evidenced by Minnesota’s early success last week. But the Badgers are strong and capable across the board, especially at linebacker. The offense is nothing to crow about, but they have put points on the board when they needed to for the most part, and if Peavy, Fumagalli, Clement, and Ogunbawale all play the present a balanced attack for a brilliant schemer like Chryst to leverage. The X factor will be turnovers. If Dixon and company snag a few of McSorley’s long throws, the Badgers will bottle up the Nits.
BRT: As others have said, it’s their defense. Additionally, they’ve been here before. Granted, “here” didn’t go well for them in their most recent trip to Indy, but still. I mean this more in the sense of having expectations and people thinking they’ll win, or expecting them to perform well on a big stage. I obviously don’t know what’s going on in PSU’s locker room with the team, but their fanbase has kind of lost their minds with the “OMG BAAAACK!!!!” narrative. If the team is in any way imbibing that, it could end poorly for them.
Candystripes: The strength for Wisconsin coming in is that they don’t have to play OSU or Michigan again. Their X factor is that they’re perfectly capable of winning close and winning big against good teams not named OSU and Michigan.
Stew: How about the obvious: their horribleness. Wisconsin is terrible, terrible place. Much like the desert planet of Arrakis, or the prison planet of Salusa the conditions hone the people there into such a condition as to be very good at physical endeavors like football.
Thumpasaurus: Wisconsin held Michigan to 14 at home. Their defense is for real. They capitalize on this defensive greatness by doing just enough to move the ball. Theirs is not an offense that scores many points, but it holds on to the ball and wears down the opposing defense. Essentially, Penn State will have fewer opportunities to score points than they’re used to, and they might not be able to afford to wait until the second half to show up.
Aaron: The Badgers don’t exactly excite you with their two mediocre quarterbacks and running game that averages around four yards per carry when Corey Clement touches the ball. That defense, though. Whoa Nelly. Wisconsin knows how to get pressure on the quarterback and leads the nation with 21 interceptions. I think they win this game by pressuring Trace McSorley and winning the one-on-one battles with Penn State’s wide receivers who will be facing their toughest challenge since they were outclassed by Michigan back in September.
Ted: Defense wins championships, and Wisconsin has the defense to beat anyone. They kept Michigan and Ohio State in check, for the most part, and if their offense can find some consistency, string together a few drives and force Penn State to go 80 yards or more on their drives, they’re going to win.
Speth: I’m going to go against the grain a bit and say it’s been the emergency of pass catching options. Wisconsin’s had great defenses the last two years and found ways to lose ugly as sin games. Yes Wisconsin’s defense is amazing, you don’t have to tell me that. However, when you’re down 17-7 and you need to convert a third down you need to have some playmakers. Troy Fumigalli, Rob Wheelwright, Jazz Peavy, and Dare Ogunbowale aren’t electrifying athletes, but along with Clement they’re the best crew of skill position players for Wisconsin since 2011. It’s too bad they couldn’t find a good quarterback to get them the ball more consistiently. As far as the x factor against Penn State, let’s go back to the defense and say it’s the guy who the Badgers are 10-0 with and 0-2 without, Vince Biegel. It isn’t necessarily just that you have to contain him, it’s that TJ Watt is absolutely unstoppable when they’re on the same side of the field. I think he’s finally 100% after having foot surgery, which should terrify Trace McSorely.
Townie: If I’m game planning against Penn State, I worry about opportunism. Penn State doesn’t beat you at the line of scrimmage. They don’t run off four, five, or six yards at a clip. Their defense isn’t dominant. It doesn’t keep you from scoring points. Penn State has given up more first half points than its scored this year (159-168).
What they do is hang around and wait for you to make a mistake. That’s what sunk Ohio State. That’s what beat Minnesota. A missed tackle here, a block kicked there, and Penn State has just enough points to win the game.
The secret to this team is great special teams and chunk plays. Penn State has two players that stand out to me on special teams. Tyler Davis is 100% on extra points (he’s kicked 50 this year) and 21 of 23 on field goals. He’s clutch. Our punter, Blake Gillikin is third in the B1G with an average of 41.8 yards per punt. He’s played a critical role in flipping the field for us. His long of 69 yards is second in the B1G.
The other secret, and the matchup that I’m most excited about, is the long pass plays. Trace McSorley is great. I wasn’t a fan in the beginning of the season. I am now. The kid is a winner. He has that intangible, anti-Connor Cook-ness about him. He’s sincere and disciplined and I’m excited for his future.
He spreads the ball around well, which is what makes this offense tough for secondaries. That’s the kind of offense we run and he fits it perfectly. We have 11 players with catches for over 20 yards. There are 9 players with catches over 40 yards. And there are five players with catches over 50 yards. Those aren’t long throws. Most of them are mistakes by the secondary. A missed assignment, we get a guy running free and McSorley hits them.
I credit this to the OC Joe Moorhead’s system, but also to McSorley’s acumen. The kid is smart and he’s improving every game. Say what you want about Michigan State, but that game was all McSorley. It was, in my opinion, his best game yet.
Finally, Wisconsin better come ready to play four quarters. If this game is close at half, Penn State wins. This team adjusts better than any Penn State team I’ve seen in years. Don’t believe me? Penn State has outscored opponents 274 to 102 in the second half and 156 to 55 in the fourth quarter.
GF3: McSorley is undoubtedly their strength and their X factor. His mobility is an insurance policy against their line’s inexperience and poor blocking. They want to make Barkley the X factor but as we've seen, any top 50% run defense can bottle him up fairly well--which is again a function of blocking and scheme. He's strong and fast. He manages to get some hurdles in and posterize corners and safeties who aggressively attack the sweep. But as a few PSU folks have noted, he tends toward that young guy habit of trying to make every run a gamebreaker instead of reading blocks and settling for bruising but effective 3-4 yard gains every time. The flip side of his running is that he's a credible enough threat to open up the passing game--and that's where PSU needs to excel to win. Godwin against man coverage and Barkley/Gisecki on underneath & medium routes when Godwin stretches the coverage.
BRT: X factor? X-cellent coaching, I am told.
Candystripes: Penn State must win the turnover battle, and probably has to win it decisively. When Penn State wins the turnover battle, they win games. When they don’t, they either need things to go well (Temple, Ohio State), need to be playing Rutgers (Rutgers), or they lose.
Aaron Yorke: Saquon Barkley is Penn State’s most talented player, but even when he has been slowed down this year, the offense keeps humming thanks to big plays in the passing game. The Lions used those to mount comebacks against Minnesota and Indiana this year, as well as to dominate the second half against Michigan State in the season finale. If Wisconsin’s rush defense plays up to expectations, this game will once again fall on the shoulders of Trace McSorley and the receivers. Whether or not they can continue making plays against one of the top secondaries in the country will determine the outcome.
Ted: Penn State reminds me of the fictional Philadelphia club fighter Rocky Balboa. Their style isn’t pretty, they don’t have a fancy gameplan, they execute on offense and defense pretty well, and they wait for you to make a mistake. They’ll absorb punishment, look like they’re on the verge of going down, and then boom, the opponent makes a mistake and Penn State is standing tall.
Stew: Big plays. You’re not gonna score points on Wisconsin’s defense without some big plays. Barkley breaking into the secondary, McSorely chucking it downfield, or maybe something like a blocked kick returned for TD?
Check in at noon for Part II!