Wisconsin and Penn State Clash for Big Ten Leaders Division

Montee Ball's nearly 1,700 rushing and receiving yards and 30 combined touchdowns make Wisconsin's offense too tough for even Penn State's stingy defense in Saturday's battle for the Big Ten Leaders division title. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

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.

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Wisconsin Seeking Payback for 2010 Loss at Michigan State Saturday

The Spartans will need to not only pressure Badger QB Russell Wilson, but also need to keep him in the pocket on Saturday – a tough task for MSU. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Wisconsin’s only loss last season came in the first week of Big Ten play, when the Michigan State Spartans hung 444 offensive yards – including 175 rushing yards – on the Badgers, beating them 34-24. The No. 6 Badgers return to East Lansing this Saturday seeking payback. The Badgers are an undefeated, explosive, high-scoring offensive juggernaut, but so was Denard Robinson and his Michigan Wolverines. How’d that work out?

Though Wisconsin still has to beat Ohio State on the road and survive two games with surprisingly ranked Penn State and Illinois, this game will in all likelihood be their most challenging. And if the Badgers want to make sure Russell Wilson‘s season as the Badgers’ hired-gun quarterback ends in the Rose Bowl or BCS Championshiop, they’ll have to solve the No. 16 Spartans.

Offensively, It’s No Contest

The Spartans can’t hang with the Badgers on offense. The Badgers average 136 more yards per game (523.2 – eighth-most in the NCAA), including over 100 more yards on the ground (257.5 – seventh-most in the NCAA). Montee Ball leads the Badger ground game, having in six games already compiled 653 yards and 16 touchdown runs, making him the second-best scoring back in the country. Ball’s speed lets him shoot through gaps in the line, then his agility helps him elude tacklers down-field. Although he runs less along the sidelines than up the gut, he’s occasionally been quick enough to round the corner once Wisconsin’s beefy linemen set an edge for him.

The Spartans, meanwhile, don’t even have a top-75 running back. Edwin Baker has been their best, but he’s gained just 419 yards and scored twice on the ground. Le’Veon Bell has six rushing touchdowns, but he’s been used so sparingly that the Badgers defense should know that whenever the Spartans are near the end zone and Bell’s in, it’s a running play.

Continue reading Wisconsin Seeking Payback for 2010 Loss at Michigan State Saturday