Game Preview: Penn State and Wisconsin Fight For All The Ranch Dressing

By Chris Grovich on December 1, 2016 at 9:00 am
Penn State celebrates their Big Ten East Division title
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports


Wisconsin Badgers
10-2, 7-2 B1G

8:00 – SATURDAY, NOV. 3

Bucky's 5th Quarter

Penn State and Wisconsin will meet Saturday night in the Big Ten Championship Game and an outside chance of leapfrogging into the College Football Playoff. We’ve discussed Penn State’s probability and deservedness for a playoff spot throughout the week. The winner of this game likely will still need some help from the results of the PAC-12 and ACC title games, the former of which will be known at kickoff. The latter will get underway at 8:00 along with the Big Ten title game. At worst, the winner of this game will end up in the Rose Bowl. Not bad for two teams that were generally picked to be third or fourth in their respective divisions back in August.

Most signs point to this being a close, relatively low-scoring game. Wisconsin enters as a 1 ½ or 2-point favorite, with the over/under of 48 points remaining mostly static throughout the week. If you’re an S&P+ fan -- and we are here at RLR -- Wisconsin is ranked 10th, while Penn State checks in at 11th. S&P+ predicts a Wisconsin win, by just 0.3 points. A blowout, unlikely as it seems, could go a long way in propelling either team into a playoff spot should Clemson or Washington stumble in their championship games.


Generally, the same Wisconsin you’ve always known. Run-first offense to set up play action passing. Very good running back. Mashing defense. They’re actually not as great of a rushing defense as tradition would indicate, though. S&P+ has Wisconsin ranked 53rd in rushing, 81st in IsoPPP (explosive rushing plays) and 111th in opportunity rate (see the S&P+ glossary for explanation of these terms).  

Essentially, Wisconsin isn’t great at just lining up and imposing their will via the ground game. Somehow, the Badgers rank 12th nationally in passing S&P+. Penn State is 9th in overall defensive S&P+. Freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook (who sustained a head injury last week against Minnesota but is presumed to start Saturday night) is a 58 percent passer with 8 touchdowns against 7 interceptions.

Backup Bart Houston began the season as the starter and has played a minor role in each of the Badgers’ last six games. Expect him to get some time Saturday night, as well. Multiple sources within Badger World think that Houston is the better choice right now. We'll see what Paul Chryst does with respect to the rotation.

Corey Clement is a solid running back (1,140 yards, 13 TD) but not much of a threat as a receiver. Dare Ogunbowale essentially gets the equivalent of Andre Robinson’s workload as a backup. Wisconsin’s two main receiving threats are WR Jazz Peavy and TE Troy Fumagalli. Peavy is also a threat on the occasional end-around. He averages 15.5 yards per carry in an offense that generally lacks big plays, so expect that to be a focus of Brent Pry’s preparation this week.

Defensively, Wisconsin is one of the elite groups in the nation -- 3rd overall in S&P+. They excel in limiting explosive plays (10th nationally), and limiting points per trip inside the 40 yard line (3rd). Penn State’s offense is primarily based on popping big plays. That’s really a theme running throughout this matchup -- lots of strength vs. strength.

Continuing on that theme, Penn State and Wisconsin’s special teams are both very good, with Penn State having a slight edge. Andrew Ellicott took over as placekicker for the injured Rafael Gaglianone early in the season and has been a bit shaky, missing two extra points and 5 of his 16 field goal attempts. Freshman Anthony Lotti doesn’t have a lofty average (37.7 yds) but has become adept at Aussie-style pin-’em-deep kicks. The aforementioned Jazz Peavy returns punts. Kickoff returns shouldn’t be an issue considering that Joey Julius will be kicking indoors.


Penn State is still deploying a hodge-podge offensive line, with Ryan Bates kicked out to left tackle, Chasz Wright holding down right tackle, and Steven Gonzalez starting at left guard against a really, really good Badger front seven. This undoubtedly leads to what has been the standard operating procedure for Penn State’s offense -- using Trace McSorley’s legs and arm to eventually open up lanes for Saquon Barkley, who supposedly is healthy and ready to go. Wisconsin got suckered on a number of Mitch Leidner option keepers last week. McSorley and Barkley are more dangerous than anything Minnesota can put on the field.

Sojourn Shelton is a very good, if undersized corner. It’ll be interesting to see if Penn State tries to avoid him, or attack him with large-bodied receivers. He and linebacker T.J. Watt both landed on the all-conference first team this week.

As for the Penn State defense, no news is good news. They’re healthy, deep, and very good. If Penn State can get to 20-24 points, feel good about your team’s chances.


It’s all house money. I mean, you should care about the result, but try to soak it all in. Penn State is either vaulting into the College Football Playoff, or settling for the Rose, Orange, or Cotton Bowl. Two months ago, the Holiday Bowl seemed aspirational. The season has been a resounding success by any conceivable metric. Let’s enjoy this.


badger badger badger

I’m not picking against Penn State now.



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