Preview: Black and Blue

One could dub Saturday's regular season finale in Madison the 'adversity bowl' with two talented teams battling for a spot in the Big Ten title game. But while No.15 Wisconsin's adversity has come from losing back-to-back heartbreakers on the road, No.20 Penn State has had to deal with far worse situations.

MADISON - As he sat at Big Ten Media Days reflecting on a 7-6 2010 season, senior running back Joe Suhey – one of 42 returning lettermen – wasn't thrilled that many people pegged Penn State to be not the third best team in the Big Ten, but the third best team in the Leaders Division.

"After last year, I don't think people should be talking about us as (third best)," Suhey said. "We definitely feel we had a great offseason and we definitely have a sour taste in our mouth after last year. We have a re-energized focused to get ready and be one of those contenders this year."

That focused came from Coach Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions' legendary leader entering his 46th season on the sidelines. Last season, Paterno was plagued with health issues and lacked energy because of it. Not surprisingly, so did his team.

"He sat us all down and said we're going to be better, he's going to be better, everything is going to be better this year," Suhey said. "We don't want another year like we did last year and we've worked hard so we can be better."

Suhey's promotion couldn't have been more accurate through nine games. Despite a 16-point home setback to then-No.3 Alabama in week 2, the Nittany Lions were winning with defense, starting the season a surprising 8-1 and looked poised to win their first conference championship since 2008 or first outright title since 1994.

Shortly after grinding past Illinois, all hell has broken loose.

Mere days after Paterno set the record for most wins by a Division 1 coach with 409, news broke that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually molested at least eight young boys during and after his tenure with some occurrences happening on Penn State's campus.

Sandusky is charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse and Paterno, who reported one incident to his superiors but was criticized for morally not doing more, was fired as a result, as well as then-president Graham Spanier being fired, athletic director Tim Curley being placed on administrative leave and vice president Gary Schultz, who was in charge of the university's police department, retiring. The latter two have been charged with perjury and failing to report the allegations while Paterno hasn't been implicated.

Throw in the fact that assistant coach Mike McQueary, who said he witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy in a Penn State shower in 2002, has been placed on administrative leave after receiving death threats, riots on the PSU campus following Paterno's firing, Paterno's name being removed from the league's championship trophy and Paterno's family announcing last week that he has a treatable form of lung cancer, the Nittany Lions' program has become a daily soap opera.

But while things are expected to get worse, Penn State's play on the field has gotten better. Naming long time defensive coordinator Tom Bradley the interim head coach for the rest of the season, Penn State has played inspired football rallying around Paterno's dismissal.

Closing the challenging week by hosting Nebraska, Penn State nearly rallied from down 17-0 before falling 17-14, unable to convert a fourth-and-1 on its own 37 with less than two minutes left. Penn State got over the hump a week later, holding Ohio State to 14 points (its lowest since scoring seven against Michigan State Oct.1) to win its first game without Paterno as the head coach since December 1965 and keep Penn State a perfect 4-0 on the road .

With Bradley and his defensive intricacies calling the shots, Penn State's defense hasn't wavered, leading the conference, third in the nation, in scoring defense (13.0 ppg) and first in the conference, fourth in the country, in pass efficiency defense (96.4).

"Without question they have battle through," said linebacker Chris Borland. "It's a unique circumstance. The players didn't do anything wrong and you feel for those guys in a difficult situation. They've responded and played well, not that football is important compared to the situation. They have responded well to adversity."

Penn State is far from a juggernaut offensively, but the Nittany Lions unveiled a new wrinkle against the Buckeyes in the Wildcat formation. Using junior wide receiver Curtis Drake and freshman wide receiver Bill Belton to run the shotgun package, the Nittany Lions gained 114 rushing yards on their 10 attempts, an average of 11.4 yards per carry.

Bradley got the Wildcat idea after seeing Belton run the offense effectively on the scout team during the Nebraska prep week.

Throw in the fact that PSU's offensive line has allowed only 12 sacks in 11 games, the lowest total in the Big Ten, the unit can surprise despite scoring 24 or more points just once during the conference season.

"They run a couple nice plays off of it, and caught Ohio State a little bit off guard on the very first one," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "They had a little D-line stunt on that got creased and got gashed, and then there were several other plays that, really created some opportunities that they didn't match up well against."

At the beginning of the season, Penn State knew that if it wanted to compete for a conference championship, the last three games were going to make or break their schedule. Even without their coach, the Nittany Lions are in a position few people expected.

After falling to Ohio State, Wisconsin knew it needed to regroup in order to have a chance to win consecutive conference titles. Now with its 10th of the season, Wisconsin gets a chance to avenge the one loss that sent them reeling.

"We've done a good job bouncing back," said Borland. "To be down to a good Illinois team and fighting back told me a lot about the guys on the team. It just confirmed what we all thought we had. Guys that have a lot of heart and fight through a lot of pain."

No.15/No.16 (AP/BCS) Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten - Leaders) vs. No.20/No.19 Penn State (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten - Leaders)

Date/Time - Saturday, November 26 at 2:36 p.m. CT

Stadium –Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)

Television - ESPN (Sean McDonough, Matt Millen, Tom Rinaldi)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas), Sirius Ch.85, XM Ch.85

Series – Wisconsin leads 8-6-0 (5-3-0 in Madison)

Last Meeting – Penn State won, 48-7, on Oct. 11, 2008 in Madison

Series Notes

The series is tied 6-6 since Penn State entered the Big Ten.

After losing four of the previous five meetings in the series, Penn State has won three of the last four.

Wisconsin has four Pennsylvania natives on its roster: Michael Caputo (Imperial), Brock DeCicco (Jefferson Hills), A,J, Fenton (Erie) and Manasseh Garner (Pittsburgh).

UW tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Joe Rudolph is Belle Vernon, Pa.

The Badgers' strength and conditioning coordinator, Ben Herbert, is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Prediction

Penn State's defense has limited nine of its 11 opponents to 18 points or less, but hasn't faced an offense quite like Wisconsin's. The Badgers' offense has been a machine, leading the Big Ten in scoring (44.8 ppg), total offense (479.5 ypg) and rushing offense (245.1 ypg). Quarterback Russell Wilson has 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Running back Montee Ball has 30 total touchdowns, and Wisconsin has won 15 straight at home.

That seems so insignificant a challenge compared to what Penn State has battled through over the last several weeks.

"I don't think any team in the history of college football has been through so much in such a time period," Bradley said. "They have been great on the field, great in the classroom and I couldn't be prouder of them."

Penn State has won its last two meetings with Wisconsin by an 86-14 margin. The Nittany Lions won their last visit to Madison 48-7 in 2008. The Badgers are favored by 15 points. What? Personally was surprised when I heard that, but I don't fault Vegas for putting its chips on UW's prolific offense and home dominance.

Those two reasons are why I siding with Wisconsin. Give the Badgers the edge because they are at home, because they have a balanced offense with Ball and Wilson and because Penn State's offense isn't anything special. Oh yeah, and pick Wisconsin so the Badgers can get another opportunity at Michigan State.

Wisconsin 27, Penn State 17

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 8-3

Against the Spread: 6-5

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