We’re just one day away from the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium, and there’s been plenty of chatter this week about who is not going to be in Indianapolis.
Ohio State and Michigan began the season in the top seven of both major polls, and remained in the top seven all season. The two highest-ranked Big Ten teams in every poll every week of the season are not going to be there.
Penn State won the Big Ten East and will face West champion Wisconsin because Ohio State gave up 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to the Nittany Lions. And because Michigan couldn’t win a game outside of the state that wasn’t played at Rutgers.
So let’s talk about the teams that are going to be there. It’s a fascinating matchup. Penn State has one of the most improved offenses in the nation. Wisconsin has one of the best defenses. Both teams feature all-conference caliber running backs.
Sean Keeler has focused mostly on teams from the West this season and spent a lot of time with the Badgers. Corey Masisak has had his eye on the teams in the East and spent plenty of nights in Happy Valley this season. We decided to get the two of them together to talk things out about Penn State and Wisconsin for the Big Ten title.
KEELER: First, how ready is Saquon Barkley for Saturday and second, how much does his health REALLY matter?
MASISAK: The easy part is everyone with a Penn State logo on his shirt and a multimedia device in his face says Barkley is fine and will play. Will he be anything approaching 100 percent? That’s a tougher one.
Barkley is the best player on the team (and officially the best offensive player in the conference now). Running back is also the deepest position on the team, so he’s probably not the most indispensable guy on the roster. Penn State did score 45 points last week when Barkley had 14 rushing yards, and 45 points two weeks prior when he had 58.
Penn State is far from one-dimensional, but Barkley is a big reason why. Teams have stacked players near the line of scrimmage to stop him all season. Being able to play Saturday and draw attention might be as important as being able to grind out yards.
MASISAK: Speaking of health issues, James Franklin said his “spies” have told him Alex Hornibrook will play. What’s the deal with the only Pennsylvania kid on Wisconsin’s roster?
KEELER: He was on the bike and up-and-at-‘em pretty quickly on Sunday — at least according to coach Paul Chryst. Good sign. The latest is that he’s passed every stage of the concussion protocol, and if that trend line holds, he’s probably a game-time or game-morning decision for Saturday.
The gut says if he’s CLEARED to play, he’ll play. And he might very well start. It’s odd and unconventional, but the Badgers have had a good thing going the last six weeks with both quarterbacks playing, and with Houston coming on in relief — either to close out a half or to close out a game.
If the game is Friday, Chryst probably starts Houston. But because it’s Saturday night, I wouldn’t be shocked if he rolls the dice with Hornibook, if Hornibrook gets the green light. Either way, if it’s up to Chryst, BOTH will play.
KEELER: Penn State has completed 42 passes of 25 yards or more, the most in the Big Ten. Despite a strong secondary, body to body, Wisconsin has surrendered 21 passes of 25 yards or more, tied for seventh-most in the league. If I’m a Badgers fan, why does this worry me as much as it does?
MASISAK: Penn State’s offense has been incredibly inefficient for much of the season. For much of the campaign, it was also terrible at converting third downs. Those big plays have been critical to the team’s success.
Trace McSorley is an interesting quarterback to watch. A lot of those downfield throws lack the traditional zip of someone capable of throwing for nearly 3,000 yards at this level, but he’s pretty accurate. He’s most dangerous on medium-level throws, not necessarily long heaves, but 20- to 30-yard tosses that turn into very long gains.
This receiving corps is also really strong. Barkley is great catching the ball. Tight end Mike Gesicki has become a weapon. Chris Godwin has NFL potential. And maybe most importantly, new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offensive system is very downfield-passing friendly.
MASISAK: That Badgers defense has been one of the best in the nation. What has made it so special?
KEELER: Tackling. Confidence. Chemistry. But I REALLY love the tackling. I’ve rarely seen a Big Ten defense — and I saw a slew of damn good ones at Iowa a decade ago with Chad Greenway, Adrian Clayborn and company — tackle as well in open-field, 1-on-1 situations as this Badgers defense does.
Spread offenses are all about exposing shaky tacklers in space, and this defense, at every level, seems to almost completely negate that schematic advantage. They know what they can do, they know what the guy next to them is going to do — and they know what the quarterback and offensive coordinator are trying to do, too.
That starts with first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who walked in and said he was going to play to his roster’s strengths, rather than shoehorn in a completely new template, and it’s filtered all the way down the line. Everybody trusts and knows the system, so when the injuries have hit — and they’ve hit hard in places, especially in the linebacker corps — the next man is ready to pick up the baton. Also, T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel are absolute beasts. That helps.
MASISAK: Hey, Wisconsin is going to have the ball, too. How does this two-QB system work, and how do they keep winning despite posting passing yardage totals out of the 1950s some weeks?
KEELER: Two words: Corey Clement. No. Five words: Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. No. Seven words: Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw. The Badgers got back to BadgerBall this fall, and got back to funneling everything through the ground game first. Mind you, it helped that Clement was able to stay healthy (save for an ankle tweak) and focused relative to last fall as the top tailback option, and Ogunbowale (good hands, power) and Shaw (speed, potential feature back of the future) compliment him so dang well.
Actually, the Badgers run the ball at you in a ton of creative ways — the jet sweep to Jazz Peavy became one of Chryst’s favorite and effective weapons. The downfield threats aren’t especially fast in boundary receivers Peavy and Rob Wheelwright, but they’re quick, and tight end Troy Fumagalli is a load who does a lot of everything well.
How do they make it work? They keep it simple, they execute like crazy, they stay on the field (35:12 time of possession per game was tops in the Big Ten and better than No. 2 Ohio State by almost two minutes) and they rarely beat themselves (No. 1 in fewest penalties per game with 3.3 and No. 2 in fewest penalty yards with 31.5). When they turn over the ball, they set themselves up for trouble, but the fumbles are precious and few (six lost all season, tied for sixth-fewest in the league).
KEELER: The Badgers get the defensive ink, but in fact the Lions are averaging a half-sack per game more (3.08, second in the Big Ten) than Wisconsin (2.58, fifth). Who are the major culprits to watch out for here? Is this a product of down-and-distance victories? Coverage sacks? All of the above?
MASISAK: Maybe the craziest part of this wild season for Penn State has been the in-season improvement of the defensive line. Remember, there were three Penn State defensive linemen taken in the NFL draft. That’s great for recruiting, not so much for the following season.
Instead of lining up with three NFL prospects on almost every down, the Nittany Lions have gone in the opposite direction and deployed a massive rotation. They have played 10 or even 11 down linemen most games. They’ll deploy hockey-style line changes with four in and four out.
So the linemen are always fresh. Senior end Evan Schwan is an effort guy. Junior end Garrett Sickels could be an NFL prospect next year. They are tied for the team lead with six sacks each.
Also, the secondary is really good. John Reid and Marcus Allen will play at the next level, for sure. That can lead to some coverage sacks.
MASISAK: The Badgers had one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and it was very front-loaded. Have there been any signs of fatigue, or a dip in their overall level of play after all of those tough games?
KEELER: In hindsight, the injuries and fatigue — a very natural fatigue, given a league slate that opened with Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State in succession — started to show more during the second half of that Oct. 29 overtime win over Nebraska, in which the Badgers let a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead in Madison get away from them pretty quickly after some fairly egregious throws by both Hornibook and Houston.
The win at Northwestern was more of a slog than the final score showed, but the defense came to the rescue again. The Wildcats were driving to the Badgers’ red zone, trailing 13-7, midway through the third quarter, and Northwestern receiver Austin Carr was feeling it. But Wisconsin pressured Clayton Thorson into trying to throw while being wrestled to ground, releasing what was essentially a lateral in the process, which Badgers safety D’Cota Dixon happily scooped up and ran the other way. The Cats were pretty much done after that.
Purdue put up a fight for a quarter and Minnesota for a half, but this defense just wears on you, like a mixed martial arts match in which one guy scores a takedown and just lays on the other guy, smothering him for the rest of the round.
KEELER: You recently pegged the Lions’ rally and overtime win on Oct. 1 against Minnesota, and not the one three weeks later vs. Ohio State, as the real turning point in Penn State’s season. What changed after that game, and who changed it?
MASISAK: The offense found its identity, and the defense starting stopping the run better. The team has certainly embraced the “anybody can make a play for us” ideal, in part because two of the biggest plays in that game came from a redshirt freshman (Irv Charles) making his first career catch and a senior defensive back (Jordan Smith) who had been lost in the shuffle until injuries happened.
Two of the biggest strengths for this team since losing by a million points at Michigan is it doesn’t turn the ball over much (five in eight games) and it doesn’t let teams push them around with the running game. Penn State has yielded 672 rushing yards in the past seven games, and only 334 in the past five.
Michigan State had more than 200 rushing yards against Ohio State and Michigan. The Spartans had 109 against Penn State. Iowa had 83 on the ground against Wisconsin and 164 against Michigan. The Hawkeyes had 30 on 26 attempts against the Nittany Lions.
MASISAK: OK, it’s about that time. What’s your prediction?
KEELER: The gut says Wisconsin, but the head says Penn State. And here’s why: If there’s one weakness on this great Badgers front, it’s on deep balls over the top along the boundary. The corners are strong, but fast targets have consistently found ways to get behind them — Amara Darboh at Michigan, Jordan Westerkamp at Nebraska, De’Angelo Yancey at Purdue — in a foot race.
No team in the Big Ten is more assured trying to beat you over the top than the Lions. On paper, that’s a bad matchup for Wisconsin here, one I’m sure they’ll address.
The simple answer is that if McSorley has time, Bucky’s in trouble. How much time he actually gets, though, is the question, because they’re going to be coming after him, man. Hard.
KEELER: What do you think?
MASISAK: Here’s one stone-cold lock: Whatever happens in this game, Ohio State and Michigan fans will spend Saturday night picking apart both teams and preening about how their favorite clubs should be in the College Football Playoff.
Now, about the game … I feel the same way, only the opposite. This has been such a crazy ride for Penn State. It was surreal to see McSorley tossing deep balls and James Franklin punking Mark Dantonio like that in the fourth quarter last week.
Can that continue against this incredible Wisconsin defense? It certain feels like the smart choice would be the Badgers, given their experience and their likely edge in the trenches. More points and faster pace would favor the Nittany Lions, but I suspect the Badgers will be able to slow everything down and grind out a very Wisconsin kind of victory.