Tall Task Facing Lions

The Nittany Lion defense is taking on the Big Ten's best offense in Madison Saturday. At stake is a berth in the first conference title game.

Penn State's season -- so odd and horrible in so many ways, so promising and fulfilling in so many others -- boils down to this: Wisconsin, at Wisconsin. A winner-take-all scrum for the championship of the Big Ten's newly created Leaders Division, and a berth opposite Michigan State in the first conference title game.

The Nittany Lions' defense would appear to face the stiffest challenge, seeing as the Badgers lead the conference in scoring offense (44.8 points per game), total offense (479.5 yards per game), rushing offense (245.1) and pass efficiency (191.4 rating).

“This,” said senior cornerback D'Anton Lynn, “will probably be the biggest test I've had since I've been here.”

He said the Wisconsin offense, heavy on the run and the play-action pass, is comparable to Alabama's, but that Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson is superior to the Crimson Tide's A.J. McCarron.

Wilson, the North Carolina State transfer, has completed 73.6 percent of his passes (170 of 231), for 2,506 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has been intercepted just three times, and serves as a more-than-worthy complement to running back Montee Ball, who leads the conference in rushing (1,466 yards), all-purpose yardage (154.5 per game) and scoring (182 points).

Ball operates behind a typically immense Wisconsin line -- the Badgers average 325 pounds per man up front -- so the first order of business for the Lions is to avoid getting mashed into submission. That means winning on first down, getting Wisconsin off-schedule in terms of down and distance, forcing them into obvious passing situations.

If they can do that, it's worth noting that the Lions have the conference's third-most sacks (27) and second-most interceptions (14). And that the Badgers' beefy blockers are not nearly as adept at pass protection as they are road-grading; they have allowed 18 sacks, only fifth-best in the Big Ten.

But if Wisconsin is allowed to do what it wants to do, it could be pretty grim.

“Any offense, if you're good enough, can wear a defense down by just running the ball, driving you,” Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar said. “People aren't superhuman. You get tired once in a while, and you get fatigued.”

Ball, Stupar said, is not unlike former Ohio State running back Beanie Wells. He is strong and smart, patient enough to search for holes, decisive once he finds one. His success has set up the play-action game, meaning the Lions need to be wary before selling out to the run.

“I'm playing pass first, no matter what,” Lynn said. “I'm not going to bite up on the run at all, especially this week, because they do a great job of selling the fake.”

Lynn and Stupar both talked about the larger challenges spawned by the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which led to the firing of coach Joe Paterno and the insertion of Tom Bradley as interim boss.

“We don't focus on that,” Stupar said. “We focus on ourselves.”

“I think we just had to turn it around and use it as extra motivation,” Lynn said, “because everything that went on didn't involve all of us. We just had to use it as motivation, and I think we've done a great job of that so far.”

As has Bradley, Lynn added. The former defensive coordinator, who played at Penn State and was a longtime member of the coaching staff, said during his weekly news conference Tuesday that he hopes to become Paterno's permanent successor. And to date he has stayed the course.

“He hasn't changed at all,” Lynn said. “He's done a great job. He's been here since he was in college, so he knew how Joe ran the program. He knew Joe's rules, and he stuck to that. We still have to go to class all the time. We still have to go all the mandatory meals. Our schedule is still pretty much the exact same. He's done a good job of keeping everything the same, but not being Joe Paterno. Being himself.”

Stupar agreed, saying that “it really feels like (Bradley's) heart's in the right place” and that he is “doing everything possible to make this the best season ever.”

“I thank him very much for that,” Stupar added.

A huge task awaits all of them now. And, potentially, a huge payoff.

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