Despite two tough-to-swallow road losses, the Wisconsin Badgers will still have a shot Saturday at the Big Ten Leaders division, the next step in their quest back to the Rose Bowl.
Standing in their way: the Penn State Nittany Lions, whose players desperately want the focus on something other than former coach Jerry Sandusky and the accusations of child molestation and statutory rape that have thrown the football program and school into chaos.
Beyond the division title and a shot at Michigan State (or in Wisconsin’s case, another shot) for the conference, both teams will be playing for the right to control the season-long storylines surrounding them.
Wilson the Hired Gun
Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson mixes a powerful, accurate arm, with great speed and agility, and a brain smart enough to discern when to use either.
The result: a 73.6 perfect completion-rate, a 26-3 touchdown-interception ratio, and a 199.3 QB rating that leads the NCAA and is more than 30 points higher than his predecessor, Scott Tolzien. And at Camp Randall Stadium – where Saturday’s game will be – Wilson’s numbers somehow are even better.
But Wilson has had to post numbers that good – his place in Wisconsin history is still very much in flux.
Coach Bret Bielema brought in Wilson as a change of pace from the quarterbacks Badgers fans were used to. The move worked, with a 6-0 start that had Wisconsinites dreaming of national championships and Heisman Trophies.
Then came back-to-back road losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Wilson threw two picks against the Spartans and completed a season-low 62.5 percent of his passes against the Buckeyes. He struggled most in his team’s two biggest tests.
As a hired gun, Wilson knows his story will be defined by how he did on the biggest stage. He’s not a QB who Bielema developed for two or three years before finally giving him the starting job; Bielema brought in Wilson as is. Should Wilson struggle, Badgers fans won’t be able to blame the steady but uncreative Bielema.
If Wilson fails, the loss will fall squarely on the quarterback himself. Wilson set a high bar for himself with his early-season magic, and on Saturday he’ll need to cast a spell over a Penn State defense that ranks second in the nation in opponent-scoring.
Can the Nittany Lions Just Play Football?
If Sandusky is guilty of what a sadly increasing number of people say he is, the school deserves all the negative publicity it continues to receive. The horror of these crimes should supersede the accomplishments of a few student-athletes.
Still, this season has in just two weeks plummeted from what looked like the best team in recent Nittany Lion history to a team too distracted by the media blitzkrieg to stay afloat.
A loss Saturday would only crystallize that notion in the public’s mind, and PSU fans will undoubtedly shed bitter tears over a season lost because of events that happened long before any of the current players donned blue and white.
Conversely, a spot in the conference championship would go a long way towards restoring school pride.
Badgers Just Too Strong
Penn State’s best attribute all season has been their ability to keep opponents out of the end zone. The PSU defense doesn’t have any big-time playmakers: not one player ranks in the national top-40 for sacks or interceptions. Instead they focus on strong team defense, with each player a crucial cog in the overall machine.
While the Nittany Lions’ defense will probably limit the Badgers, it won’t be able to shut them down completely. The Badgers are ranked fifth in the country in scoring, putting up nearly 45 points a game.
Wisconsin’s running attack, led by Montee Ball and his NCAA-leading 30 combined touchdowns, ranks 10th in the country. Penn State’s Silas Redd has had a solid, 1,100-yard season, but he’s nowhere near the running back Ball is.
In the passing game, PSU quarterback Matthew McGloin just isn’t accurate as Wilson is. And on the receiving end, Wisconsin’s 1-2 receiving punch of Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis dwarfs PSU’s Derek Moye and Justin Brown by over 300 yards and nine touchdown receptions.
If Wisconsin’s defense allowed a lot of points, PSU’s might hold back Wilson just enough for PSU to win. But Wisconsin’s defense averages just 2.9 more points per game.
Wisconsin won’t score as much, but PSU will barely score at all. Prediction: Badgers 27, Nittany Lions 9.