Lions to challenge UW front five

Badgers ready for ‘fight to the end' against best front they have faced all season

On the final play of the first half of Wisconsin's 16-3 victory over Penn State last year, right defensive end Matthew Rice managed to get by the Badger offensive line and sack quarterback John Stocco for an eight-yard loss.

The play likely would not be remembered today if it were not for the man Rice went through to make it — the usually invincible Joe Thomas.

Thomas later recalled it as the only time he remembers being so clearly beat by a defensive lineman. That play is indicative of the troubles the Penn State front seven, still intact from that 2004 meeting, can cause for Big Ten offenses.

"We obviously won the game and Bernie had a hundred and some yards rushing so you'd like to think we got the better part of it," Thomas said. "But it was definitely a great battle. They have all the same guys — linebackers and (defensive line). It will be a fight to the end."

"All the same guys" consist of four linemen and three linebackers who all played last year in Madison. Rice and fellow senior end Tamba Hali anchor the very experienced line and will take the Beaver Stadium field Saturday for the final time in their careers.

Hali, along with junior linebacker Paul Posluszny, earned Sports Illustrated midseason All-American honors and will likely face off with Thomas on the majority of the snaps. Thomas said he expects them to flip the two ends from side to side but expects to see more of the 6-foot-3, 262-pound Hali, who enters the game second in the Big Ten in both sacks (7) and tackles for loss (11).

"Tamba Hali is really athletic and quick, and he has great hands," Thomas said. "He uses quickness better than any defensive lineman I've seen all year."

Offensive line coach Jim Hueber echoed Thomas' praise, noting that Penn State allows its front to penetrate and relies on the running ability of its linebackers to fill the holes.

"Their scheme fits for their guys," Hueber said. "They turn their guys up front loose. I would tell you, probably without a doubt that it is (the best defense we have seen)."

The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in scoring defense, surrendering just 16.1 points per contest. They also lead the conference in pass defense (192.9 yards allowed) and rank second in total defense (296.6 yards), run defense (103.7 yards) and sacks (27).

Hali, junior Jay Alford and senior Scott Paxson are all among the top 10 sack leaders in the conference.

As Hueber alluded to, PSU's line can put pressure on the quarterbacks in part because of its productive trio of linebackers. This recent edition at "Linebacker U" includes two players on national award watch lists, Posluszny and sophomore Dan Connor.

With a year of eligibility still remaining, Posluszny's résumé runs longer than a Scorsese movie:

Midseason All-American by SI, CBS Sportsline and, Butkus Award semifinalist, Lombardi Award Semifinalist, Nagurski Trophy Watch List, Bednarik Award Watch List, Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week, second team All-Big Ten as a sophomore. He is also the only player on either side of the ball to win Big Ten Player of the Week on three straight occasions, which he did earlier this season.

Add second-year starter Tim Shaw to the mix and the Nittany Lions again boast a top-flight unit that is no longer cruising under the radar, especially after beating Ohio State.

"They're probably the best trio of linebackers we've seen so far all year," Thomas said of Penn State. "They weren't the guys at the beginning of the year who everybody said ‘these are the top linebackers,' but these guys run all over the field. They're a little lighter than some of the other guys but they're big hitters, kind of in the mold of the Penn State linebackers of old."

The question for the Badgers will be whether their offensive line can create gaps and establish a ground game early to open up room for quarterback John Stocco. Penn State held Ohio State's offense 100 yards below its then-average of 191 rushing yards per game. Before that, the Nittany Lions stifled Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, allowing him just 48 on the ground compared to his 151.7 average.

Only Thomas and center Donovan Raiola return as starters from last year's game, although seniors Matt Lawrence and Jason Palermo possess experience at the guards. What will be key for Wisconsin is the play of redshirt freshman Kraig Urbik, who will need to continue his steady progression in the face of Hali and Rice.

"I feel comfortable now with what we're doing scheme wise," Urbik said. "I think I still have a lot of things to work on. I'm just trying to do that every week."

The first freshman offensive tackle to start for the Badgers in nearly a decade is beginning to understand all the details in preparation for big games, Hueber said. Urbik was able to shut down another top defensive end in Steve Davis when Wisconsin beat Minnesota three weeks ago.

"I think he's been quick to correct things that he's had to work on," Hueber said. "I think he's really hard on himself if he doesn't."

Both Urbik and Thomas agreed that the line must be on top of its game if they hope to stifle a technically sound and athletic group of Penn State defenders. So far they have maintained their own, allowing the Badgers to post a Big Ten-leading 39.7 points per game. In terms of point production Saturday's game matches the top offense against the top defense in the conference.

"We can't try for a superhuman effort," Hueber said. "If you believe the things you've been doing are right, if you believe they're good, then you just need to keep doing it and you need to just keep working to get better. If we can get better we'll be OK."

Last year, the scoreboard tilted in favor of the Badgers behind the heroics of fullback Matt Bernstein. However, two costly false start penalties and occasionally unsound pass-blocking meant the line was not perfect throughout. In a game being broadcast to nearly half the country and played before what some are saying will be the largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history, the unit will need to hang tough for 60 minutes.

If Penn State somehow finds a way to beat Thomas again, you can bet he will hear about it.

"It means we've got to be on," Thomas said. "It's a challenge you have every week, to be able to put together a four-quarter game and be sound and have no mental errors throughout a full game. That's what we're going to try to do this weekend."

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