Know Your Foe: Penn State

Arguably the surprise team of the Big Ten this season, Penn State looks to get win number eight and clinch second place in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Fight on State publisher Mark Brennan.

Penn State is ineligible from postseason play and Wisconsin is looking to play for a Rose Bowl berth next week in Indianapolis. The game means virtually nothing from an outsider's perspective, but don't mention that to the players involved.

Penn State was crippled with sanctions prior to the season and many thought the Nittany Lions would spiral downward. Bill O'Brien has changed the culture in his first season, leading to a 7-4 overall record and 5-2 conference record, making O'Brien the conference's coach of the year in many people's eyes.

Wisconsin is looking to establish some momentum in an up-and-down season by earning a statement win and rebounding from another one possession loss; the team's fourth of the 2012 season.

The last three games in the series have all been decided by at least 31 points, but Penn State is only favored by three points heading into this weekend's game. How has O'Brien changed the culture at Penn State? Where has quarterback Matt McGloin improved the most under O'Brien's tutelage? How will Penn State recover without one of its emotional leaders?

To find out more, Badger Nation reached out to Fight on State publisher Mark Brennan to get some insight on Penn State.

1) It appears Michael Mauti's career at Penn State is done after his injury Saturday. How big of a loss is that for the Nittany Lions defense and how will Penn State adjust?

Brennan: He is out for this game. And it is a significant loss in that Mauti was an every-down linebacker. Like fellow OLB Gerald Hodges, Mauti was comfortable stuffing the run or dropping into coverage, so Penn State's thin secondary has not had to play much nickel. Mike Hull is a capable replacement, but he is a bit undersized, and could have trouble against Wisconsin's power rushing game. Mauti is also a great leader but he'll be on the sideline for the game, so he can still help there.

2) Penn State has the top red-zone defense in the conference, allowing opponents to score just 68.8 percent of the time. What makes the Nittany Lions so good inside the 20?

Brennan: As the field shrinks, Penn State's secondary can worry less about the deep pass and focus more on underneath stuff and run support. Couple that with an impressive front seven and you have the recipe for a strong red-zone defense.

3) McGloin doesn't get praised for being a top quarterback, but he finished just four yards shy of the PSU passing yards record, totaling a career-best 395 yards against Indiana. How has Bill O'Brien's system made him a better quarterback?

Brennan: He's received plenty of praise in these parts, having laid waste to most of the team's season passing records. No player has benefited more from the system O'Brien brought with him from the New England Patriots, which places more of a premium on adjustments at the line of scrimmage and good decision making after the snap than on arm strength or athletic ability. McGloin was named the starter following spring ball, and without the pressure of looking over his shoulder, has taken far fewer chances than he did earlier in his career. In retrospect -- for this season, at least -- it turned out to be a blessing that Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien landed in Madison rather than State College.

4) Speaking of O'Brien, how has he kept this team together this season and what are the expectations around Penn State going forward with him at the helm?

Brennan: The biggest thing was that he kept most of the senior class intact. He also has added a shot of much-needed youthful energy into a program that had gotten stale in Joe Paterno's final seasons as head coach. The key going forward is keeping as many of the top underclassmen as possible in the program. Remember, they all have the ability to transfer to other schools without penalty until the start of next preseason. So this feel-good story has the potential to unravel in a hurry if there is a mass exodus. There is a group of second-year players who have dubbed themselves the "Supa Six" -- led by standout receiver Allen Robinson -- who appear to be the key to everything. If they all stay, PSU should be pretty good for the next couple of seasons.

5) What changed after the loss to Virginia that Penn State was able to put together an impressive five-game winning streak?

Brennan: The secondary improved and the kicking game became less of a disaster. I'll also go back to that senior class. This team has endured incredibly difficult situations since the Sandusky scandal broke. So making it through a two-game losing streak really was not that big of a deal.

6) Without question Wisconsin's best offensive weapon is Montee Ball, who rushed for 191 yards last week and scored four touchdowns against Penn State last season. Where did PSU's defense struggle against stopping Ball last season and is this year's group better equipped to stop him?

Brennan: I think Ball will get his yards. Even with a healthy Mauti, Penn State wasn't exactly shutting down the better running backs on the slate. I thought the difference in last season's game -- and this has been the case in all four of PSU's losses this year -- was the play of the opposing QB. Russell Wilson gave the Lions fits with his arm and legs last season.

7) With this being Penn State's last game of the year, are players treating this game any differently, like a bowl game?

Brennan: Well, the company line has been that every game is a bowl game for PSU this year. So I'm not sure they can treat this in more of a bowl-like fashion. The real difference for this game is that it will be Senior Day. Again, because this group stuck with Penn State in the face of serious adversity, many consider it the best senior class in school history.

8) In your opinion, how will the addition of Maryland and Rutgers into the Big Ten change Penn State's recruiting approach?

Brennan: If you mean in football, not at all. Penn State is already a major player in the I-95 corridor and I don't see that changing. If anything, it ought to help recruiting in the region, since players' families will have more of a chance to see their kids play in Big Ten games. Hoop-wise, it is too early to tell. Penn State doesn't really have a basketball recruiting "backyard," so to speak. It will be interesting to see if that changes now that the Big Ten has expanded much father into the East.

9) In what areas do you think Penn State has a distinct advantage over Wisconsin and why?

Brennan: Teams with mediocre quarterbacks have struggled against the Penn State defense. Teams with versatile, effective quarterbacks have given the Lions problems. I think a one-dimensional offense that has been led by a QB carousel is a good matchup for the PSU defense.

10) What's the key to the game for the Nittany Lions? Do you have a prediction?

Brennan: The key, in my estimation, is for Penn State -- especially McGloin and TB Zach Zwinak -- to avoid the turnovers that proved fatal in losses to Ohio State and Nebraska. I think the Lions do that and pull away late for a 24-14 win.

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