GAME NOTES: The Penn State Nittany Lions close the curtain on their 2013 season when they take on the 14th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers this Saturday in Big Ten Conference action.
Since opening the season at 2-0, Penn State has alternated losses and wins, with its most recent outing resulting in a 23-20 overtime setback to the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers last Saturday. It was the third time this season the Nittany Lions had a game go beyond regulation, but after winning the first two, including a four-OT affair against Michigan, the team's luck ran out.
At 6-5, the Nittany Lions have the requisite number of wins to go to the postseason, but the team still has two more years of NCAA sanctions that will keep it from competing for the Big Ten title and going to a bowl game.
Wisconsin had hoped it had done enough to warrant a third straight trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, but a 31-24 loss at Ohio State back in late September was its lone league blemish, and the Buckeyes are undefeated so even if the two teams finish with identical league ledgers at the conclusion of this weekend's action, the Badgers will be left out of the proceedings.
UW is in the midst of a six-game win streak, and the team is a perfect 6-0 at home this season. The Badgers beat border rival Minnesota for the 10th straight time last Saturday, making sure that Paul Bunyan's Axe stays in Madison for another year.
Wisconsin owns a 9-7 lead in the all-time series with Penn State, but the Nittany Lions won last season's meeting, 24-21, in overtime, and have been victorious in three of the last four encounters overall.
Christian Hackenberg threw for 217 yards and two TDs, while rushing for a score, but a 2-of-14 effort on third-down conversion attempts proved disastrous for the Nittany Lions as they lost in overtime to visiting Nebraska last Saturday. Allen Robinson caught eight passes for 106 yards, and in the process passed former PSU standout Bobby Engram for second place on the school's all-time receptions list. Zach Zwinak rumbled for 149 yards on 35 carries.
The Nittany Lions played very good defense in allowing just a single TD and two field goals in regulation -- the Cornhuskers' other score came on a 99- yard kickoff return early in the third quarter. Glenn Carson logged a game- high 10 tackles for Penn State, which permitted 360 total yards (168 rushing, 192 passing), and came up with two turnovers (fumbles) and a pair of sacks.
The Penn State offense has been respectable this season, averaging 28.5 points and 430.3 yards per game. The team has been solid in rushing for 178.4 ypg with 22 TDs, while navigating the airways for 251.9 ypg and 17 scores. Hackenberg, who is only a freshman, has completed 58 percent of his passes for just over 2,600 yards with 16 TDs and 10 interceptions, with Robinson being far and away his target of choice, as he has a Big Ten-best 89 grabs for 1,310 yards and six TDs. Zwinak and Bill Belton rank one-two on the team's rushing list with 874 and 796 yards, respectively, with the former finding the end zone 12 times, and the latter another five.
With the offense doing just enough to get the team by on most days, the defense has had to scuffle at times, while at others displaying a dominance synonymous with Penn State squads of the past. Overall, foes are generating 374.3 ypg, while scoring 26.4 ppg. Carson paces the unit with 85 tackles, and Mike Hull is next with 71. Jordan Lucas leads the way with three picks, while DaQuan Jones has 11.5 TFL, and C.J. Olaniyan 5.0 sacks.
While clearly disappointed in the outcome, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien lauded both teams for standing their ground last week.
"The kids played hard. They played with great intensity. Matter of fact, I think both sides played with great effort; that is never the problem at Penn State. It is too bad that we did not win. But Nebraska did a great job."
In last week's win in frigid Minneapolis, James White fueled the Wisconsin offensive attack with 125 yards and a TD, while Jared Abbrederis caught seven balls for 67 yards and a score. In all, the Badgers generated 324 total yards, compared to only 185 for the Golden Gophers. Wisconsin QB Joel Stave went 16- of-26 for 127 yards with a TD and an INT.
The UW defense, led by Chris Borland with his 12 tackles and two fumble recoveries, was particularly tough against the pass (83 yards), although it allowed Minnesota's ground attack to muster only 102 yards as well. In all, the Badgers were credited with three takeaways (all on fumbles) and three sacks, and the Gophers converted only 3-of-13 third-down opportunities while holding possession of the ball less than 25 minutes.
The Badgers have certainly produced on offense this season, riding the coattails of White and Melvin Gordon, a couple of 1,000-yard rushers who have a combined 25 TDs on the ground, to maximum effectiveness. As for the passing game, Stave has been efficient in completing 63 percent of his throws for just over 2,000 yards with 17 TDs and nine picks. Like Robinson for Penn State, Wisconsin relies on Abbrederis to get the job done down field, and he has responded by taking 61 balls for 916 yards and seven scores.
Borland tied a Big Ten record by forcing his 14th career fumble in last week's win, and he now has 92 tackles on the year to pace the club. His eight TFL also lead the team, and his 4.0 sacks ties him for second with Warren Herring, only 0.5 behind leader Brendan Kelly. Sojourn Shelton highlights the secondary with four interceptions. Wisconsin ranks among the national leaders in scoring defense (13.4 ppg), doing a particularly masterful job of stuffing the run (99.5 ypg, seven TDs).
The Wisconsin defense has held its last three conference opponents out of the end zone, and head coach Gary Andersen is the first one to heap praise upon that unit.
"There is a strong group of seniors (on our defense)," Andersen said. "It means a lot to them to play. Those seniors play a lot of snaps on defense and this season meant a lot to them. My hat goes off to those kids."
O'Brien is going to have his team focused on the task at hand, which is to finish the season strong. That said, the Badgers can still improve their postseason prospects by piling on another win, so expect them to run, run and run some more as they push the visiting Lions out of Madison.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Wisconsin 31, Penn State 17