At 38-years-young, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema is facing arguably the most important game in his three-year tenure, as the Badgers are on a two-game skid to open the conference season for the first time in six years.
In what mounts as a huge mid-season hurdle for both teams, No.6 Penn State travels to Wisconsin for a night game under the lights of Camp Randall this Saturday.
For a team struggling on both sides of the football, the Badgers (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) are going to have their hands full with one of the most balanced teams in the nation.
Penn State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) is ranked 7th in the nation in scoring (44.8 ppg), 8th in rushing (256.6 ypg) and 9th in total offense (499.6 ypg), all of which leads the Big Ten. The Nittany Lion attack goes by the catch phrase ‘Spread HD.'
Developed by quarterback coach Jay Paterno, the Spread HD, which stands for anything from high definition to high diverse, uses a combination of a West Coast passing attack and a spread-option rushing attack.
Junior quarterback Daryll Clark has been a big factor to why the offense works. Clark leads the Big Ten with a 162.5 pass efficiency rating, has completed 64.5 percent of his passes (80 of 124), has thrown for 1,116 yards and has nine touchdowns to only one interception.
"He's a guy who can do it all," Joe Paterno said of his quarterback on Tuesday. "He can run and he can tough run. He's a big man, about 235 (pounds) and he's got good speed. He's developed into a good passer and getting better all the time."
Throw in the fact that Penn State has the best trio of wide receivers in the conference (Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams) and sophomore running back Evan Royster is averaging 7.8 yards per carry, Penn State is a formidable offense to stop.
Wisconsin shouldn't be too intimidated though, as the Nittany Lion offense is similar to the one employed by the Buckeyes. With an elusive quarterback and a bruising tailback, Wisconsin allowed Ohio State's offense to only 327 total yards and the Badgers are confidence that a tweak or two here and there will make them a solid unit.
"Our confidence is still high as a defense," senior linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "We could have won the game and that's not taking anything away from Ohio State. They're not good team, they are a great team. We were a play or two away from winning that game. We didn't play four quarters against Michigan and last week we did. We have some errors here or there that we need to fix up and I think we can do that."
But while the Badgers are tweaking their defense, Penn State is clicking on all cylinders. The Nittany Lions rank No. 11 in the nation against the run (80.2 ypg), No. 8 in total yards (250.3 ypg), No. 9 in points allowed (11.7 avg.) and 14th in sacks (2.8 per game).
The Badgers saw first hand what the Nittany Lions can do last season. After losing their first game of the 2007 season, the Badgers were held to 331 yards, seven points and let PSU turn three UW turnovers into 14 points in a 38-7 blowout in Pennsylvania.
"We got beat and I don't think we were on our P's and Q's that game," senior Travis Beckum said. "We didn't come in well prepared and they took advantage of that and beat our butts. Our motivation this week is to look each other in the eye and ask if we want to go out like this. The older guys need to come together and take on that role of leadership."
After two emotional losses, the latter snapping UW's 16-game home winning streak, the Badgers' hopes of the Rose Bowl or a BCS Bowl have seemingly gone by the wayside while Penn State is hoping to punch its ticket to Miami and the national championship game. With the Badgers looking to make a statement to get back on track, there's no better place to end a losing streak than in front of 80,000+ fans at home.
"I hate losing. It sucks, but you have to move on because losing does happen," Casillas said. "We don't want to lose no more. I hate to go out on a sour note and we have a lot to play for. We're a great team and our record doesn't show that. I hope Penn State is not thinking they are going to come in here and run over us because they're not. They're going to get a great team, we're going to prepare for them and we're going to be ready to play."
No.6 Penn State (6-0) vs. Wisconsin (3-2)
Date/Time - Saturday, October 11 at 7:00 p.m. CT
Arena – Camp Randall (80,321)
Television - ESPN (Mike Patrick, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – Wisconsin leads 8-5
Last Meeting – Penn State won, 38-7, on Oct. 6, 2007 at State College, Pa.
This will be just the 14th meeting between Wisconsin and Penn State with the Badgers leading the all-time series in Madison (5-2), including winning three of the last four meetings at Camp Randall Stadium (PSU last won in Madison in 2002). The home team has won each of the last four meetings.
Wisconsin has limited the Nittany Lions to just six combined points in the last two games in Madison.
UW has only lost consecutive games to Penn State just once in the all-time series (1996 and 1997) and the Badgers (7-5), along with Alabama (8-4), Michigan (10-3) and Ohio State (12-7) are the only teams in the country with a winning record against Penn State during the Joe Paterno era (at least 10 games played).
Long snapper Dave Peck is the lone Badger from Pennsylvania.
Wisconsin is in a deep rut and now has to deal with the Allan Evridge-quarterback controversy. It's been well documented that Bielema called out Evridge for his accuracy struggles, sloppy footwork, etc. etc. Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst told the media that Evridge had a good practice on Tuesday but compared to how he's been playing and without the Penn State defense in the picture, it's hard to say how good it really was.
While the offense was sluggish against Purdue, Penn State's defense was stellar, holding the Boilermaker pass-happy offense to only 158 passing yards … not a good sign for a struggling-quarterback to get back in rhythm.
The Nittany Lions are 5.5-point favorites and frankly, that number is too low for this game. Penn State has struggled at Wisconsin, as the Badgers have averaged 11 more points and 132 more yards at home against PSU than when they play on the road. This isn't the usual Badger team though, which means the struggles will continue for at least another week.
Penn State 30, Wisconsin 17
Straight up: 4-1
Against the Spread: 4-1