1, What have been the main things that have clicked for Penn State on its current eight-game winning streak?
Mark Brennan: PSU has been balanced on offense, deep on defense and consistent on special teams. When opponents stack the line to stop the run, the Lions throw it long. When opponents try to double the receivers, Saquon Barkley and company run wild. On defense, PSU is playing a ton of guys (more on this later) and has been very fresh at the ends of games. Finally the Lions have excellent kickers (placements, kickoffs, punts), have been strong on coverage and have a handful of big blocks.
2, What have been the big differences defensively this season now that Brent Pry is the defensive coordinator instead of the co-defensive coordinator?
Brennan: The Lions really don’t have the sort of star power they did last year, when three of their defensive linemen went on to be drafted. As I noted earlier, it has been more about depth. Pry and his staff substitute like crazy — even taking their best players off the field in the first half so they are fresh down the stretch. Against Rutgers, more than 30 Lions made at least one tackle. Last week vs. Michigan State, PSU was credited with 10 tackles for loss, yet nobody had more than one.
3, Penn State always has good linebackers and Brandon Bell appears to be no exception. How has he been able to disrupt offenses and how different was the corps without him for four games?
Brennan: Note that early in the season, PSU lost all three of its starting LBs to injuries. When Bell and Jason Cabinda returned (Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the year), the current winning streak began. Bell has a real nose for the ball and is an effective blitzer. He and Cabinda are both natural leaders. The silver lining of them missing so much time is that it forced the staff to play a bunch of younger guys at linebacker. As you will see Saturday, Pry will rotate Bell and Cabinda out at times, just to keep them fresh.
4. How has Pry’s scheme allowed Marcus Allen to have such a dramatic edge in team tackles over the next closest defender?
Brennan: Well, a lot of that big lead in tackles has to do with Bell and Cabinda missing so much time. But Allen is outstanding in run support. So is fellow safety Malik Golden. They are so good, in fact, that teams use it against them, trying to draw them up with play action before taking deep shots. Some have connected this year but it has not stopped the PSU safeties from being aggressive against the run.
5, The Big Ten has many good tailbacks, but what makes Saquon Barkley so good?
Brennan: First, he’s patient in a lot of ways. When Penn State was struggling to learn a new offense early in the season, Barkley never got flustered. When opponents stack the line to stop him in the course of a game, he grinds and grinds until something pops. Even on individual runs, he’ll cruise along looking for a crack before exploding. He’s also versatile, having developed into an outstanding receiver and solid blocker.
6, How has Trace McSorley evolved during the course of the year?
Brennan: It took him a few games to get new OC Joe Moorhead’s RPO offense down. But once McSorley smoothed out the timing with Barkley — they were having mesh-point issues early in the season — the offense really took off. McSorley’s pocket presence has really masked some flaws on an offensive line that was awful in 2014 and 2015, and has had to deal with some serious injury issues this fall.
7, Other than the obvious of being the Big Ten champions, what would this victory mean for Penn State considering the journey it’s been on the last few years?
Brennan: By simply advancing to this game, the Nittany Lions have exceeded all expectations (other than their own). When PSU was slammed with N.C.A.A. sanctions in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, even the most ardent fans figured it would be a decade or more before the program recovered. Even after the sanctions were all eliminated, this figured to be a stepping-stone season to bigger things in 2017 and beyond. This is, after all, the first year PSU has had 85 scholarships available, and two-thirds of the scholarship players have freshman or sophomore eligibility. So really, anything positive that happens from here on out this season is gravy.
8, Who is the X-factor on Saturday for Penn State?
Brennan: Tyler Davis. The soccer-player-turned-kicker has been terrific this season, with his only two misses coming on blocks. If the game is as close as I expect, Davis has a chance to loom large.
9, What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Penn State trouble? Where do you think the Nittany Lions have the edge over the Badgers?
Brennan: I think Penn State is going to struggle to run the ball, especially early. That has been kind of a pattern against the very best teams on the schedule. The Lions don’t have a dominating offensive line, so they’ll have to try to loosen things up with the passing game and hope to eventually spring Barkley and company.
On the flip side, Penn State’s rush defense has been strong during its winning streak, even against teams that have made extreme commitments to running the ball. As I noted, the Lions will load that box and force Wisconsin to try to beat it with the pass.
10, What is the one thing Penn State needs to do well in order to win Saturday?
Brennan: Hang on to the football. I think the team that commits the fewest turnovers wins.