Instead of looking at its 2016 schedule to be challenging or difficult, Wisconsin saw it as an opportunity to show how good of a football team they could be. Using the one-game-at-a-time mantra, Wisconsin’s success has put itself in a position to win its 15th conference title and its fourth Big Ten championship since 2010.
In order to accomplish one of its team goals that was set prior to the season, Wisconsin will have to knock off its sixth top-10 team of the season when it faces No.8 Penn State at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
Here are BadgerNation’s five keys to a Wisconsin victory against Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game.
1, SLOW DOWN SAQUON BARKLEY
It was quite the week for Saquon Barkley, who was named the Big Ten offensive player of the year and the conference’s running back of the year award; two honors that he rightfully earned considering Barkley led the Big Ten with 17 touchdowns and 1,563 all-purpose yards. Wisconsin’s defense gets the right to try and find a way to slow him down, which few teams have done this year. Barkley is capable of beating teams in a multitude of ways, as he averages 5.3 yards per carry and registered 21 receptions this year. Barkley left last week’s game against Michigan State early due to an ankle injury but is expected to play.
Wisconsin has only allowed Leonard Fournette to top the 100 yards rushing in a game this season and are holding teams to 100.8 rushing yards per game. It will be important for Wisconsin’s defenders to stick to their assignments on each play to put themselves in a position to make sure Barkley can’t have success.
2, CREATE PRESSURE
The pressure Wisconsin’s defense has been able to create this season has been impressive. Thanks to having multiple players who have shown they’re capable of getting after the quarterback, Wisconsin’s opponents are unable to key in on one player. With outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt playing off of each other well over the last couple of weeks, the Badgers’ defense will rely on those two to make sure quarterback Trace McSorley can’t get comfortable. It will be a team effort in order to do that and important for Wisconsin to continue delivering minimal success on first and second down, forcing Penn State to face a third-and-medium to third-and-long. Those situations will allow Wisconsin to bring pressures on third down, something they have shown to be good at this year. Last week Wisconsin registered three sacks on third down against Minnesota, giving the Badgers 16 on the season.
3, CREATE TURNOVERS
Over the last three weeks Wisconsin has registered 11 interceptions, giving them a FBS-best 21 on the year. Can the turnover pace Wisconsin’s defense has established over the last three weeks continue? It will be difficult considering McSorley has thrown five interceptions this year. The Badgers will have little success if they can’t get after McSorley and limit his time in the pocket. McSorley has shown the ability to carve up defenses if given the chance, as he completed 73 percent of his passes against Michigan State. If Wisconsin can create a miscue, they’ll need to convert it into points. Of the 25 turnovers they have forced this year, Wisconsin has registered 86 points.
4, PLAY OF WISCONSIN’S QUARTERBACKS
It is still unclear whether or not Alex Hornibrook will play as he recovers from a head injury he suffered against Minnesota. If he can’t go, senior Bart Houston will be counted on to continue the solid play he’s given Wisconsin over the last two weeks. Houston is completing 70 percent of his passes (14 of 20) and has passed for over 100 yards each game with one touchdown. Penn State is capable of slowing Wisconsin’s run game, as the Nittany Lions allow 146.2 rushing yards, making it important that whoever is in at quarterback for Wisconsin is able to make the critical passes to keep drives alive. If Wisconsin can provide steady quarterback play, it should help make sure Penn State doesn’t load up the box.
5, PREVENT PENN STATE’S SECOND HALF SUCCESS
Penn State has shown this year to be a second-half team, ranking second in the FBS in scoring in the second half (22.83 points per game) and first in fourth quarter scoring (13 ppg). The Lions’ defense has been excellent in the second half, too, posting a plus-12.33 differential in scoring. That continuous success makes it vital Wisconsin consistently executes when they possess the football, allowing them to control the clock and have success in the red zone. The red zone has plagued Wisconsin’s offense for a majority of the season but the Badgers have gone 17-for-17 over the last three games. That consistency will once again be needed, as Penn State has allowed teams to have a success rate of 87.5 percent inside the 20.
After starting the season 2-2 with a lackluster loss to Pittsburgh and a blowout loss at Michigan, Penn State has since reeled off eight straight wins and have looked impressive doing so, especially on offense with McSorley, Barkley, Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki playing important roles in the turnaround. Those four helped Penn State average 37 points in Big Ten play, which ranked second in the conference.
Facing talented offenses isn’t anything new for Wisconsin’s defense considering the Badgers have already faced Ohio State (38), Michigan (36.8) and Northwestern (28.3), which ranked first, third and fourth, respectively, in scoring offense during conference play. The Badgers held all three under their final scoring average.
In order for Wisconsin’s defense to disrupt a Penn State offense that averaged 443.7 yards of total offense, they need to find ways of limiting big plays, a staple of the Nittany Lions’ offense. In four of his last five games McSorley has completed a pass of at least 42 yards and has five completions of 50 yards or more. To balance the offense, Barkley - outside the last two games - has at least one run of 20 yards or more through the first 10 games. If Wisconsin’s defense can consistently prevent the chunk plays by Penn State’s offense, they should be able to create short drives.
With Penn State likely forcing Wisconsin to try and beat them with the pass, it will be important that the combination of Hornibrook and Houston hit some throws to force Penn State to spread the field. Jazz Peavy and Rob Wheelwright will need to be solid and consistent catching the football, as creating short third downs will be key to allow Paul Chryst to lean on his run game to help control the clock and move the ball down the field. Keeping Penn State’s offense off the field could prove important in the outcome of the game.
With Wisconsin’s dominance of winning time of possession this year because of its running game and its defense, the Badgers should find a way to win another conference championship.
Wisconsin 27, Penn State 20