UW v. Penn State, matchup analysis

A close look at the Badgers and Lions leading up to Saturday's game at Beaver Stadium.

Penn State offense versus Wisconsin defense

Penn State projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

QB Michael Robinson (Sr. 6-2, 218) MLB Mark Zalewski (Jr. 6-2, 228)
TB Tony Hunt (Jr. 6-2, 224) WLB Dontez Sanders (Sr. 6-1, 223)
FB BranDon Snow (Jr. 6-1, 241) SLB LaMarr Watkins (Sr. 6-1, 223)
LT Levi Brown (Jr. 6-5, 322) RE Matt Shaughnessy (Fr. 6-6, 230)
LG Charles Rush (Sr. 6-2, 304) RT Nick Hayden (So. 6-5, 302)
C Lance Antolick (Sr. 6-3, 291) LT Mike Newkirk (Fr. 6-3, 250)
RG Tyler Reed (Sr. 6-4, 303) LE Joe Monty (Jr. 6-2, 252)
RT Andrew Richardson (Sr. 6-5, 305) SS Joe Stellmacher (Jr. 6-1, 216)
TE Isaac Smolko (Sr. 6-5, 260) FS Roderick Rogers (Jr. 6-2, 181)
WR Jordan Norwood (Fr. 5-10, 162) CB Brett Bell (Sr. 6-0, 200)
WR Deon Butler (Fr. 5-10, 167) CB Allen Langford (Fr. 5-11, 187)

When Penn State has the ball, the first matchup to watch is Michael Robinson versus Wisconsin's scheme. The Nittany Lion signal-caller is having an All-Big Ten caliber season, with more than 2,300 yards total offense, 10 rushing touchdowns and 13 passing touchdowns. The Badgers have been scheming to slow him down all week, and whatever plan UW has concocted will be put to the test early and often Saturday.

Wisconsin's defense has limped through the Big Ten season, patching together a workable unit through a deluge of injuries. The Badgers have been vulnerable to the big play; Penn State has feasted on big plays. The Badgers have struggled immensely to stop the run in recent weeks; Penn State's running game has been building impressive momentum all season. The Lions enter the game ranked second in the league in Big Ten-only rushing, averaging 232.5 yards per game.

It starts with PSU's veteran front five, which has the ability to take control of a game. Continuity has helped. The only change along the offensive line in the Lions' starting lineup has been Andrew Richardson filling in for fellow senior right tackle John Wilson, who is out with a knee injury.

Wisconsin's defensive line has had to battle through a plethora of injuries, but has been slowly drawing closer to health in recent weeks. The Badgers expect to have defensive tackle Justin Ostrowski back this week but he will still be limited. Tackle Jason Chapman has recovered from the ankle injury that limited him for three weeks, but is doubtful for Saturday with an elbow injury suffered in practice this week.

One of the best matchups on the field will be true freshman defensive end Matt Shaughnessy versus 322-pound left tackle Levi Brown. Shaughnessy has held up very well this season, but Brown could pose his biggest, and best, challenge yet.

UW's linebackers have to play better this week. The unit should be buoyed by the return of Mark Zalewski, a captain and perhaps the team's best defensive player.

Senior outside linebackers Dontez Sanders and LaMarr Watkins, and freshman fill-ins DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas will have their respective hands full battling with PSU fullback BranDon Snow and tailback Tony Hunt, not to mention tracking down Robinson.

Wide receiver/cornerback Justin King had four rushing attempts for 56 yards last week, giving UW a little more to think about.

Penn State as a team rushed for 303 yards last week against Purdue, a team that held the Badgers to 63 rushing yards and 280 yards total offense. Hunt has rushed for 100 yards or more four times this season, including in three of the past five games. He is seventh in the Big Ten in league-only games, averaging 90.8 yards per game. Robinson is ninth at 76 rushing yards per game.

In a unique twist this week, Wisconsin's cornerbacks are more experienced on balance than their wide receiver counterparts. But that is little solace considering how effective true freshman receivers Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood have been. Wisconsin has received better production of late from redshirt freshmen Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford and senior Brett Bell, but the Badgers are still prone to giving up too many big plays. Butler, averaging 18.8 yards per reception, in particular will challenge UW's secondary Saturday.

Watch out for receivers such as Terrell Golden, King and Ethan Kilmer. That trio has combined for just 18 receptions this season, but they have turned those opportunities into 395 yards and five touchdowns. PSU certainly misses true freshman dynamo Derrick Williams, but this is a deep, athletic receiving corps that will stretch UW's secondary and also has proven adept at working underneath routes.

Wisconsin offense versus Penn State defense

Penn State projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

OLB Paul Posluszny (Jr. 6-2, 234) QB John Stocco (Jr. 6-2, 197)
ILB Tim Shaw (Jr. 6-1, 234) TB Brian Calhoun (Jr. 5-10, 203)
OLB Dan Connor (So. 6-3, 200) FB Chris Pressley (So. 6-1, 256)
RE Matthew Rice (Sr. 6-4, 262) LT Joe Thomas (Jr. 6-8, 303)
RT Scott Paxson (Sr. 6-5, 292) LG Matt Lawrence (Sr. 6-5, 295)
LT Jay Alford (Jr. 6-3, 288) C Donovan Raiola (Sr. 6-3, 294)
LE Tamba Hali (Sr. 6-3, 262) RG Jason Palermo (Sr. 6-3, 307)
FS Chris Harrell (Sr. 6-2, 212) RT Kraig Urbik (Fr. 6-6, 317)
SS Calvin Lowry (Sr. 6-0, 200) TE Owen Daniels (Sr. 6-3, 247)
CB Alan Zemaitis (Sr. 6-2, 196) WR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)
CB Anwar Phillips (Sr. 6-1, 187) WR Jonathan Orr (Sr. 6-3, 190)

Brian Calhoun has put together an All-American-caliber season so far. Now, he faces the best defense on Wisconsin's schedule, one that already shutdown Minnesota's Laurence Maroney this season. Penn State has allowed only one team - Northwestern - to reach the 400 total yards plateau in a game this season. And only three have scored more than 15 points.

The best matchup to watch could be fullbacks Chris Pressley and Bill Rentmeester and tailback Calhoun versus Penn State linebackers Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and Tim Shaw. The Lions' linebackers are not the biggest players out there, but they are arguably the best corps in the nation. They play fast and physical and will try to swarm around Calhoun.

UW's offensive line also faces its toughest task of the season. Penn State's starting front four has combined for 18 sacks and 33 tackles for loss this season. Tamba Hali (seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss) is the headliner but all four are top-notch players. Paxson has nine tackles for loss and Alford has six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. That interior tandem will be a handful for Wisconsin center Donovan Raiola and guards Jason Palermo and Matt Lawrence.

Hali and end Matthew Rice could be more disruptive, however. UW left tackle Joe Thomas is one of the nation's best linemen and will do well Saturday. But do not expect him to flat dominate his opponent as he has often this season. At right tackle Kraig Urbik has played quite well this season, but he will face his toughest task of the year Saturday. Dealing with players as experienced and talented as Rice and Hali could prove traumatic. Urbik will be up to the challenge for the most part, but expect Hali and Rice to have some success off the edge.

If Penn State forces Wisconsin into a one-dimensional corner, this game will turn into a rout in a hurry. The best way the Badgers can prevent this is to get wide receivers Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr involved early and often. That is easier said than done against senior cornerbacks Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips, the Big Ten's best tandem. Williams and Orr are enjoying the best seasons of their careers, however, and will pose a tough matchup for the Lions. If they can loosen up the defense, the Badgers should be able to run the football effectively. If Penn State can load up against Calhoun, it will be a long day for Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin versus Penn State special teams

Penn State projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

PK Kevin Kelly (Fr. 5-7, 175) PK/KO Taylor Mehlhaff (So. 5-11, 179)
P Jeremy Kapinos (Jr. 6-1, 222) P/H Ken DeBauche (So. 6-2, 219)
PS/KS E.Z. Smith (Sr. 6-1, 280), Jay Alford (Jr. 6-3, 288) LS Steve Johnson (So. 6-3, 247)
PR Calvin Lowry (Sr. 6-0, 200) PR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)
KR Justin King (Fr. 6-0, 179) KR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)

The Badgers special teams have been outstanding this season, but Penn State has also been strong in this regard.

Ken DeBauche continues to lead the Big Ten in punting, averaging nearly 46 yards per punt. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in net punting as a result of DeBauche's placement, which has included 16 punts inside the 20 and just two touchbacks.

Jeremy Kapinos has been similarly effective for Penn State. The Lions are third in the Big Ten in net punting in league games. Kapinos' 41.7 yards per punt is also third. This season he has placed 15 punts inside the 20 and had only four touchbacks.

PSU punt returner Calvin Lowry is averaging a respectable 10.8 yards per attempt.

Wisconsin's Brandon Williams is one of the best return specialists in the nation when opponents actually give him a chance to return a punt or kickoff.

PSU true freshman kicker Kevin Kelly leads all Big Ten kickers with 81 points (9.0 per game) in all games and 60 points in Big Ten games. Wisconsin's Taylor Mehlhaff is third at 8.3 points per game (75 on the year) and second with 54 points in conference games. 

Final thoughts

It is easy to see why many expect Penn State to roll in this one. The Lions match up well in every aspect of the game and PSU's offense looks to have a clear advantage over UW's defense on paper.

This, however, will be a very close game. Wisconsin's defense is talented enough to compete and the Badgers will put together a more complete performance Saturday. Penn State's running game will wear on the Badgers, however, and the Lions defense is just a little too tough. Brian Calhoun will top 100 rushing yards and continue his touchdown streak, but Penn State will come away with a victory.

BadgerNation.com projection: Penn State 24, Wisconsin 20

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