Penn State Football

How can Penn State football get past Wisconsin? Here are the 2 key matchups

Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry talks to his players after practice on Wednesday, August 8, 2018.
Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry talks to his players after practice on Wednesday, August 8, 2018.

There’s been a lot of disappointment so far this season with both No. 20 Penn State and unranked Wisconsin. And both need a win at noon Saturday in Happy Valley to help turn around their seasons. Here are the key matchups to Saturday’s game that we think should go a long way in determining the winner:

John McGonigal: Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor vs. Penn State’s front-seven

Last season, Jonathan Taylor caught the country’s attention. The Wisconsin back snapped Adrian Peterson’s FBS record for rushing yards by a freshman with 1,977 on 299 carries (6.6 yards per attempt). He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, was a consensus second-team All-American and spearheaded the Badgers’ run to a 13-1 record.

Returning with high expectations, the sophomore opened as Westgate Las Vegas Super Book’s third Heisman favorite in August. Now? Taylor isn’t listed as one of nine contenders on Bovada and garnered just one third-place vote in The Athletic’s weekly Heisman straw poll.

Twelve months removed from his rise to stardom, Taylor seems like an afterthought. Because Wisconsin is 6-3, not rolling to the Big Ten title game undefeated with College Football Playoff aspirations, the limelight has faded. But he’s putting up the same numbers.

Taylor leads college football with 1,363 rushing yards. If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten West and reaches the conference title game, the back is on pace for 2,120 yards; if not, he’s still projected to get to 1,969 — only seven behind his stunning 2017 total. Taylor’s 11 rushing touchdowns sit atop the Big Ten, and his 36 rushes of 10 yards or more are third-most in the country.

“He’s a physical back. He likes to get north-south. He’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and try to run you over,” Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson said. “But he also has that top-end speed. Whenever he gets to the second level, he can take off.”

Of course, Taylor is guided by a highly-touted offensive line. The Badgers had three blockers — Beau Benzschawel, David Edwards and Michael Dieter — named to the AP’s preseason All-America teams.

The onus will be on Penn State’s entire front-seven, not just the defensive line, to stop Wisconsin’s rushing attack. Defensive tackles Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor have to be ready to be worn down; pass-rushers Shareef Miller, Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney must be prepared to hold the edge; and Johnson, Cam Brown, Micah Parsons and Koa Farmer need to keep everything organized and fill in the gaps.

Wisconsin’s passing offense really isn’t much of a threat, ranking 110th nationally in yards per game. Alex Hornibrook — a middling signal-caller to begin with — is in concussion protocol. If he can’t go, it’ll be Jack Coan under center. In his lone start, Coan completed 20 of 31 passes for a meager 158 yards in a 31-17 loss to Northwestern two weeks ago.

“Our primary concern going into almost every week is to stop the run. Obviously with them being a run-heavy team, that’s our main concern,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re really focused on.”

Josh Moyer: Penn State QBs vs. Wisconsin secondary

If you watched last Saturday’s loss, you probably don’t need this key matchup explained. Trace McSorley suffered his worst game as a starter (5-of-13 passing, 1 interception) and, in relief, Tommy Stevens threw a pick-six.

Wisconsin’s defensive backfield is just fine. It’s young, the scheme is simplified, and it’s been hampered by injuries — but it’s still been effective. Not elite, but good. This isn’t a key matchup because it’s strength-on-strength. The real reason is simply because Penn State’s passing game is the question mark of the week.

Stevens acknowledged Wednesday that McSorley “re-injured” his leg against Michigan late in the game Saturday. So that brings up more questions than answers: Will McSorley play every snap this weekend? Is he in worse shape now than a week ago? Will Stevens be asked to step up? And, if he is, can he be successful?

Against an aggressive defense that allows big plays, there’ll be opportunity here for Penn State — but it’s difficult to predict whether it can capitalize. Wisconsin team leader and safety D’Cota Dixon will finally make his return this week following an injury and, statistically, the Badgers boast the second-best passing-efficiency defense that the Nittany Lions have faced so far. (Wisconsin is ranked No. 33; only No. 1-rated Michigan has been better.)

Penn State isn’t good enough in the trenches to be a one-dimensional offense. So, if the passing game sputters and the receivers can’t create big plays, the entire offense is in trouble.

If McSorley is “on” and at 100 percent, we’ve seen what he can do to good defenses. Just look at the 2016 Big Ten championship. But if he’s not? Well, he had a QBR of 3.5 Saturday — a rate worse than Rutgers’ Arthur Sitkowski in seven of nine games this year.

How Penn State’s passing game fares this weekend will go a long way in determining how fans view both offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and this 2018 season. It might be one of the most important matchups of the year.