Far From Indy: Penn State vs. Wisconsin and What Could Have Been

By John Morgan on November 9, 2018 at 11:00 am
Dec 3, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions coach James Franklin holds up the trophy with linebacker Brandon Bell (11) after the game against the Wisconsin Badgers during the Big Ten Championship college football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Penn State defeats Wisconsin 38-31.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

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Preseason No. 4 Wisconsin travels to preseason No. 10 Penn State this weekend in what was one of the more highly anticipated match-ups heading into 2018. The last time these two teams faced it was under the bright dome lights of Lucas Oil Stadium with the Big Ten Championship on the line. We all know how that ended, but in case you forgot, Penn State won 38-31. On Saturday, it's a noon tilt between two 6-3 teams that had high expectations, but now it's two teams trying to make sense of what could have been.

Preseason Expectations

Penn State and Wisconsin entered 2018 with similar expectations and that was to compete for their respective division titles. It was assumed that Wisconsin had an easy road to hoe even though they had road games at Michigan and Penn State. 

For the Nittany Lions, they play in the much tougher division, but the schedule was favorable as they had Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa at home with their tough road game at Michigan. It's the schedule that the 2017 team would have killed for, but a year later, it was kind of the crutch that seemed like it could propel the team.

The Hype

Both Penn State and Wisconsin entered 2018 with plenty of weapons and plenty of questions. Each team had major gaps to fill, but they seemingly had enough returning talent to gloss over those weaknesses.

For Wisconsin, they would be able to control the game through their stout running back Jonathan Taylor, and that would be enough to band-aid over the fact that their defense was suspect and had lost a lot as Dan previewed back in August. Along with the running game, Wisconsin had Alex Hornibrook back for another season and their offense would carry the load in the junior division of the Big Ten. The Big Ten West was labeled as a mere formality for the Badgers as they were anointed as division champs before ever playing a game.

As for the Nittany Lions, they had to replace Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton on offense as well as leaders on defense like Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen. Penn State had a trump card with a third-year starting quarterback and ultimate gamer in Trace McSorley. The division was always going to be tough, but an early game against Ohio State with a new quarterback and Michigan State at home, it seemed like a tailor-made setup for a young team.

The Reality

Wisconsin was exactly who you thought they would be through the first two weeks and they ran well and dominated two teams they should. Week 3 came along and they found themselves in a battle with BYU. It was stunning at the time as the Cougars won 24-21, but it wasn't a killer because BYU is a good team. The Badgers won a hard fought game against Iowa and pounced on a hapless (at that time) Nebraska team. They headed to Michigan with a chance to right the ship, but were exposed for all their flaws as the Wolverines found their groove en route to a 38-13 win. It was a loss that Badger fans could live with if it was close, but the doubts crept in and two weeks later, without Alex Hornibrook, were awaken to the reality of their season with a 31-17 loss to Northwestern. It was the reality check that no college football fanbase wants to face, but that free pass to Indianapolis became very complicated.

Penn State sneaked by Appalachian State in the opener 45-38 and it seemed like our fears were upon us. A great offense, but a susceptible defense and in the end, Trace McSorley would prevail. For the Nittany Lions, they would struggle at times, but the defense would adjust and the offense would start rolling. It happened against Pitt, Kent State (to a degree) and Illinois. Against Ohio State, Penn State dominated the first half, but left points on the board and only had a 13-7 lead at the half. It was more a sign of things to come than initially anticipated, but all was well with a 12-point lead with eight minutes to play. Ohio State performed their two-year act of tearing the heart out of Penn State fans and left the residual effect. Penn State's offense, which had initially carried the the team, struggled after the bye week and let Michigan State hang around long enough to deal a Mortal Kombat death blow to any faint hope at a College Football Playoff. Penn State hung on for dear life to beat Indiana and then went to Michigan to only be served with the coldest dish of reality.

Where do we go now (Guns N' Roses - Sweet Child O'Mine Voice)

That fourth loss looms large on Saturday as these two teams who once were considered as a possible rematch of the 2016 B1G Championship face off in a nondescript Big Ten game. 

"On Wisconsin!" They head to Purdue next weekend in a game in August looked like a trap game, but now will be a true test. Their fourth and fifth loss are on the table which seems improbable a few months back. As the resident idiot who checks James Franklin's Twitter mentions each week, I oft wonder what it's like for someone like Paul Chryst who has got Wisconsin back to their bread and butter type team.

No one is safe on Twitter.

Penn State faces their final test on Saturday against Wisconsin. With games remaining against Rutgers and Maryland, a win Saturday gives them a shot at another 10-win season. As unappetizing as that once seemed, it's right where Penn State is in 2018. I felt like the Nittany Lions were a team in search of their identity for the last few weeks, but it was right under their nose. Dropped balls, special teams gaffes, questionable coaching from all aspects and a young teams has defined this team. The flaws once seemed easier to overcome, but as other issues rose, it's just one of those years when you had a seat at the table and you picked that lame thing on the menu.

Penn State faces Wisconsin Saturday in the Would've, Could've maybe even Should've Bowl. Two teams, high expectations and a chance to stir up the College Football Playoff. In the end, two deeply flawed teams face off to try to salvage what once was. That 2016 B1G game was fun so let's do it again courtesy of YouTube.

 

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