Christian Hackenberg’s true freshman season has gone pretty well. Save for a few hiccups, Hackenberg has progressed this season and is primed to be one of the Big Ten’s better quarterbacks for a few more years. Joel Stave has eight games of experience on Hackenberg and has played well for the Badgers. Hackenberg is accumulating more offense but has cooled off at times in the red zone where he’s only completing 38 percent of his passes. Stave has completed 62 of his attempts in the red area.
Advantage: It’s a push.
There’s a reason Wisconsin’s running game is second in the Big Ten. Melvin Gordon and James White are backs 1A and 1B. They are second and third, respectively, in rushing in the Big Ten and both rank in the Top 15 nationally. Gordon is averaging 125 yards per game while White has chipped in 117. White is used more on passing downs, as his 33 receptions are good for third on the team. Checking in at around 200 pounds apiece, Gordon and White have also combined for 27 total touchdowns. Penn State also uses a two-back system, but it mostly operated on the legs of Zach Zwinak last weekend after Bill Belton sat out with an injury and illness. Belton is probable for Saturday. If he is limited or suffers a setback, Akeel Lynch is available for Penn State.
Penn State’s receiving corps has been plagued by a number of dropped passes lately as Jesse James, Brandon Felder, Geno Lewis, Richy Anderson and Allen Robinson all have drops in the last two games. Adam Breneman has made a lot of progress and has a touchdown in each of the last two games. James came up with a highlight-reel play last week, too. Robinson could be playing in his last game for Penn State, should he choose to leave early and enter the NFL Draft. Wisconsin has a workhorse in Jared Abbrederis, who has 61 catches for 916 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Two of tight end Jacob Pedersen’s three touchdowns have come in the red zone.
Advantage: It’s a push.
Wisconsin is led by it’s hulking offensive line that combines to weigh in at 1,596 pounds, which is 65 pounds heavier than Penn State’s front five. Both units have been successful in opening lanes in the running game, but the Badgers have done so more consistently. Wisconsin is averaging 298 yards per game on the ground, and left guard Ryan Groy will likely be one of the first 10 guards taken in the NFL Draft in May. The Badgers have only given up 12 sacks this season.
Beau Allen is the big man in the middle of the Badgers’ 3-4 defense. At 6-foot-3, 325 pounds, Allen is flanked by two other large bodies in 270-pound Pat Muldoon and 280-pound Konrad Zagzebski. All three players can occupy multiple gaps and free up their linebackers. Deion Barnes, C.J. Olaniyan and DaQuan Jones all have sacks over the last two games.
Penn State’s group has come around this season but still remains thin. Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell played their most effective games yet against Nebraska, while Mike Hull and Glenn Carson both made key plays. Wisconsin depends on its linebackers for a lot of plays, especially rushing the passer. In that regard, Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong, Conor O’Neill and Brendan Kelly have been successful. The four have combined for 121/2 sacks.
Wisconsin’s pass defense has been stingy all season. Young corners Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary have gotten a lot of support from safeties Michael Caputo and Dezmen Southward. Caputo and Southward have combined for 93 tackles, including 61/2 for losses. The Badgers rank second in the Big Ten in pass defense, giving up just 179 yards per game. They’ve allowed only eight passing touchdowns. Although just a freshman, Shelton has four picks. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas continue to give the Nittany Lions their best look at corner, and their physical play on the edges has been noticeable.
The Badgers haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season but still lead the Big Ten with a 24-yard average per game. That doesn’t bode well for Penn State. The Nittany Lions have struggled to cover kickoffs over the past two weeks, giving up two touchdowns. Wisconsin’s punting game averages a yard less per game than Penn State, but they are comparable. The Badgers have had inconsistencies in the kicking game and have missed six of 18 field goal attempts. Sam Ficken has been shaky as of late.
It’ll be Senior Day at Camp Randall Stadium, so the Badgers are likely to be an emotional group early. That could work in Wisconsin’s favor or against it. Penn State outlasted Wisconsin last season and must play a perfect game to beat the Badgers. Wisconsin doesn’t make many mistakes, as evidenced by its plus-six turnover margin. One of the best defenses in the country, Wisconsin tightens up in the red zone and has allowed just nine touchdowns on 25 opponent trips inside their 20.
By Travis Johnson