Penn State fans and the Big Ten Championship
James Franklin compares it to an assistant coach finally becoming a head coach.
The initial thought is, now that you’ve reached this pinnacle you have to start acting differently. But that isn’t what got the coach to that point in the first place.
Franklin and the Nittany Lions are aware that Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin is a big deal.
They’re not dismissing the importance of what’ll happen at Lucas Oil Stadium. They’re just not going to let it consume them.
“To go into this game and try to become something we’re not in a week, or for me to handle the game differently than I have, that’s not what got us here,” Franklin said Wednesday.
When the No. 6 Badgers and No. 7 Nittany Lions kick off at 8:17 p.m. on Fox, don’t expect to see a totally different Penn State team.
Behind Franklin’s approach and Joe Moorhead’s offense, the Nittany Lions are going to be aggressive, taking their shots down the field on Wisconsin’s secondary and trying to score early if possible.
That’s not to say adjustments won’t be made if necessary. Penn State is a second-half team, after all.
But the Nittany Lions aren’t going to be held hostage by the moment.
With a Big Ten title and possible trip to the College Football Playoff on the line, Penn State is preparing just as it has during its eight-game winning streak.
Points have been hard to come by against the Badgers this year, that’s for sure.
Wisconsin boasts the third-best scoring defense in the country, allowing only 13.7 points per game.
The Badgers have surrendered 30 points in a game only once this season, and that was in their overtime loss to Ohio State. Wisconsin has allowed 12.9 points per game in regulation during Big Ten play.
“Salty” has been used to describe the Badger defense, and that would be apt.
However, Wisconsin hasn’t faced a team so dynamic and willing to push the envelope down the field. Penn State ranks seventh nationally and first in the Big Ten with 57 passing plays of 20 yards or more, while nine different Nittany Lions have hauled in passes of 40 yards or longer.
Stack that up against Wisconsin, which has allowed only seven plays of 40 yards or more, and there’s a battle to be had.
If the strengths cancel each other out, the game could come down to how well the Nittany Lions can run the ball.
Good news for Penn State fans is that star sophomore running back Saquon Barkley is expected to play — and play well, Franklin said Tuesday.
The coach also said in a Big Ten Network interview Tuesday that Barkley probably could’ve went back into the regular season finale against Michigan State. The running back exited in the third quarter after hobbling off the field with an apparent right ankle injury.
If he’s close to or at 100 percent healthy, Barkley could provide another game-breaking dimension to Penn State’s offense.
But that doesn’t guarantee he’ll find success.
Barkley, who lit up the box score with 571 rushing yards in October, has only one run of 20 yards or more the past three weeks. Of course, he left not only the regular-season finale early, but also the game at Rutgers, so seeing him get back to that devastating form would be welcomed by the Nittany Lions.
It’ll be hard against the Wisconsin defense, though. The Badgers rank third nationally in rush defense, letting up 100.8 yards per contest.
Outside of running back Corey Clement, not much Wisconsin has offensively should necessarily be feared.
The Badgers’ implementation of both redshirt freshman southpaw Alex Hornibrook and senior Bart Houston has worked as well as a two-quarterback system can, but neither is a threat to pick apart a secondary.
Hornibrook, who was listed as questionable earlier in the week due to a head injury sustained in Wisconsin’s regular-season finale, has thrown eight touchdowns to seven interceptions this year. Meanwhile, Houston is more of a game-manager.
Jazz Peavy (582 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns) and Troy Fumagalli (467 yards) are Wisconsin’s primary pass-catchers, but the Badgers’ offense truly runs through Clement.
A senior from New Jersey, Clement has 1,140 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground this season. He’s been on a roll recently, hitting or exceeding the century mark rushing in each of his past four games.
“That’s their guy,” Franklin said Tuesday.
It’ll be a challenge to halt the surging senior, but Penn State’s defense has quietly emerged as a force against the run. The Nittany Lions have allowed only 66.8 rushing yards per contest in their past five games, while holding opponents to 1.98 yards per rush in that span.
That’s a major reason why the Nittany Lions have allowed only 15.8 points per game in their eight-game winning streak.
Couple that with Wisconsin’s 66th-ranked scoring offense, and the Badgers could find it difficult to move up and down the field on Penn State.
Penn State placekicker Tyler Davis has been Mr. Reliable, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors after sinking 21 of 23 field goals during the regular season.
Wisconsin junior Andrew Endicott has done well filling in for Rafael Gaglianone, who underwent season-ending back surgery in late September. Endicott has connected on 11 of 16 field goal attempts, including a 4 of 5 mark from 40-49 yards.
Nittany Lions freshman Blake Gillikin (third in Big Ten with 41.8 yards per punt) looks to continue his impressive campaign.
Freshman running back Miles Sanders has looked capable of breaking a kick return loose, turning heads with a 48-yard return against Iowa and 33-yarder at Pittsburgh.
We’ll see if he can make an impact in Indy.