The No. 6 Badgers are looking for their third Big Ten Championship title in four tries while the No. 7 Nittany Lions make their first appearance in Indianapolis.
The stage is set as the Wisconsin Badgers and Penn State Nittany Lions have gear up for a primetime matchup for the Big Ten title tonight in Indianapolis. It should be an electric atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium with potential College Football Playoff implications on the line. After both teams came into the season unranked, who would have thought that these two programs would be in this position. While Wisconsin had arguably the toughest schedule in the country facing five top-ten teams including three in the top-five, Penn State rebounded from a 2-2 start including claiming victory over No. 2 Ohio State.
Let’s look at the tale of the tape:
No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 7-2 B1G) vs. No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1 B1G)
When: 7:17 p.m. CT
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium – Indianapolis, IN
TV: Fox – Gus Johnson (play-by-play) and Joel Klatt (color)
Line: Badgers by 3
Coaches: UW – Paul Chryst (39-24, fifth season) vs. Penn State – James Franklin (48-29, sixth season)
Last time they played: 2013 – Penn State defeated Wisconsin 31-24 in the regular season finale.
Notable: Each team trailed at halftime of their respective games last week but both rallied in the second half to secure their spot in tonight’s title game. Wisconsin def. Minnesota 31-17 while Penn State def. Michigan State 45-12 outscoring them 35-0 in the second half.
What we know: The winner of this game is the Big Ten champion
What we don’t know: The winner is not guaranteed a spot in the college football playoff. After No. 4 Washington dismantled Colorado last night in the Pac-12 championship, the winner of this game will need some help from No. 23 Virginia Tech, who faces No. 3 Clemson tonight in the ACC Championship game. If the Big Ten winner doesn’t get a spot in the playoff, it’s more likely they will earn a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Penn State offense vs. Wisconsin defense
The Nittany Lions have one of the most productive big-play offenses in the Big Ten while the Badgers boast one the stingiest defenses in the country. Led by sophomore quarterback Trace McSorely, Penn State has averaged 40.4 points per game throughout their current eight-game win streak and have generated 80 plays of 20-plus yards this season. They will face their toughest test in Wisconsin’s defense, which has let up just 13.7 points per game this season. Penn State’s sophomore running back and Big Ten offensive player of the year Saquon Barkley has led the team with 22 plays of 20-plus yards with 16 coming on the ground. His ability to break loose and get to the second level has been key to the Nittany Lion’s success.
Wisconsin’s defense has carried them all season long led by their outstanding linebacking core of T.J. Watt (9.5 sacks) and Vince Biegel (three sacks). Not to mention, UW has led the nation in interceptions with 21 including 11 in the last three games. However, McSorely has thrown just five interceptions this season which is good for tops in the Big Ten and sixth nationally. The pressure from their front seven has forced teams into trouble and that must continue today in order for the Badgers to slow down the high-potent offense of Penn State.
Wisconsin offense vs. Penn State defense
This matchup will also be very intriguing tonight. After a rough start to the season, Penn State’s defense has tightened up and limited its last seven opponents to just 16.6 points per game while Wisconsin has averaged a respectable 28.5 points per game.
It’s no secret the Badgers have been a bit suspect offensively all season long but they do have playmakers including senior running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbawale along with receiver Jazz Peavy (39 catches, 582 yards, 5 TD) and tight end Troy Fumagali (38 catches, 467 yards, 1 TD). Clement recorded his first career 1,000-yard season with 1,140 yards on 271 carries and 13 touchdowns for an average of 4.2 yards per carry while Ogunbawale (80 carries, 470 yards, 3 TD) has been a nice change of pace back especially on third downs.
One thing to watch out for is the two-quarterback system that Wisconsin has been going for most of the season with senior Bart Houston and freshman Alex Hornibrook. Even though Hornibrook has started since week four, Paul Chryst has had each guy continue to split time each week. While having a two-quarterback system can be an issue for most teams, it seems to be a good problem for the Badgers. Both have different styles and have complimented each other in different ways. Hornibrook brings more accuracy and touch on the ball while Houston has been able to come in and make plays when the offense seems to stall a bit. It will be interesting to see how things play out tonight as Hornibrook, who is coming off a concussion last week, gets the call to start once again and will face a Penn State defense filled with plenty of playmakers.
Update (5:00 p.m. CT): Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated reported that Bart Houston will start tonight’s Big Ten Championship game against Penn State. Alex Hornibrook (head) will still be available to play.
Throw the records out the window. There’s a lot on the line and both teams know it. Whoever can come out and win the battle up front on both sides of the ball will have the edge. Wisconsin will need to limit the big plays and keep their defense off the field. Penn State has been known to get off to slow starts, but have been second half warriors all season long as they have outscored opponents 280-105 after halftime. The Badgers will need a complete game from their defense from start to finish and find ways for both of their quarterbacks to be successful against what has become a top-tier Big Ten defense as of late for the Nittany Lions. Wisconsin seems to have the edge as they have been here three times already in the Big Ten Championship game’s short five-year history.
Wisconsin 31, Penn State 17