A matchup that once could have been a realistic possibility as a Big Ten Championship Game preview doesn’t quite have that magnitude as Penn State hosts Wisconsin this weekend. The Badgers travel to Beaver Stadium in need of a win to remain in the running for a division title in the Big Ten West as they continue to chase Northwestern.
Penn State’s division hopes were officially laid to rest last week with their blowout loss at Michigan, leaving the Nittany Lions looking for a rebound in a big way at home where few games have gone smoothly for the home team this season. Penn State was taken to overtime by Appalachian State, beaten by Ohio State and Michigan State and had a tough battle with Iowa all in Beaver Stadium this season. Wisconsin is more than capable of giving Penn State some similar frustrations this week.
Wisconsin at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -8.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Alex Hornibrook and Trace McSorley banged up
Both Big Ten programs face questions about the health of their starting quarterbacks. Wisconsin’s Hornibrook, who missed a game two weeks ago due to not being cleared from concussion protocol, is listed as questionable for this weekend after leaving Saturday’s game with head injury concerns. If Hornibrook is unable to go, Wisconsin will turn to sophomore Jack Coan, who filled in for Hornibrook against Northwestern.
Penn State’s McSorley has not looked himself the past few weeks and could be more beat up than he and James Franklin are willing to discuss. Penn State would likely insert Tommy Stevens into the offense if McSorley is ineffective and off the mark, but how quickly Franklin is willing to make such a change could be a key factor.
2. The Penn State-Wisconsin series is split down the middle
Penn State and Wisconsin met twice before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993, with Wisconsin winning both meetings. Since Penn State joined the conference, the Nittany Lions have won nine of the 16 meetings, meaning the all-time series is split evenly with nine wins apiece. Penn State has won five of the last six meetings in the series as well, including the most recent encounter in the 2016 Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. Penn State has also won the last three games played in Beaver Stadium — in 2012 (24-21), ’07 (38-7) and ’05 (35-14).
3. Wisconsin’s strength vs. Penn State’s weakness?
It is no surprise Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the Big Ten when it comes to running the football. The Badgers bring the conference’s top rushing offense to Happy Valley with Jonathan Taylor leading the way with 1,363 yards and 11 touchdowns. As Michigan showed last weekend, Penn State can struggle against the run. Penn State has the 10th-ranked rushing defense in the Big Ten and has allowed over 220 rushing yards four times this year (Pittsburgh, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan). Look for Wisconsin to establish the run game to their advantage and take the pressure off whoever is playing quarterback.
After suffering three losses in the division, this could be a real gut-check moment for Penn State. Wisconsin will be the last real challenge for Penn State this season, and this game could carry a lot of weight in what kind of bowl destination Penn State will be visiting. Getting a team still playing for something meaningful this season presents Penn State an opportunity to show some pride and provide a reason to be encouraged about the remainder of the season. Trace McSorley will need his receivers to hold on to the football, and Penn State has to find a way to get Miles Sanders involved. Wisconsin will be a bit one-dimensional with the running game, which could be an advantage for Penn State even given how good the Wisconsin running game is.
Prediction: Penn State 24, Wisconsin 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.