With Saturday’s appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium, the University of Wisconsin football team will become the most common participant in the Big Ten title game’s short history. Four of the six conference championship games will feature the Badgers.
This time, No. 6 UW (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) will head to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with not just a conference title on the line against the Big Ten’s East Division winners, No. 7 Penn State (102, 8-1 Big Ten), but a potential berth to the College Football Playoff.
UW knows it needs help for that to happen. Plus, the team’s goal, as has been repeated many-a-time throughout the season, is to control the controllable and focus on the present.
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“We view it as a championship game,” fifth-year senior running back and team captain Dare Ogunbowale said. “I think that’s even bigger than a playoff game. Playoffs are to get into championships. This is the Big Ten Championship, that’s what we see it as.”
Standing between the Badgers and their first conference championship in four years is a high-powered Nittany Lion offense with tremendous big play ability. Led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorely and running back Saquon Barkley, the offense has averaged 40.7 points per game during the team’s eight-game winning streak. The Penn State offense versus the UW defense will be a premier matchup on one of the game’s biggest stages.
Barkley, the newly-crowned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, has amassed 1,219 yards this season, which ranks second in the league. His 15 rushing touchdowns is tied for first in conference. Fifth-year senior safety Leo Musso said Barkley ranks near the top of best backs the UW defense has faced in 2016.
“He can do it all,” Musso said. “He’s very, very athletic. He’s very explosive. But we’ve played a lot of great backs too this year, which has kind of helped prepare us. Each guy is different. I think the teams that we’ve played have done a great job preparing us for what to expect.”
Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who spurned a shot at the NFL for a chance to win a Big Ten title his senior season, said Barkley will be the most talented back the Badgers have faced in conference play this season, calling him “shifty” and “elusive.”
Wisconsin has no slouch at running back either. Senior Corey Clement is a 1,100-yard rusher and has rushed for at least 100 yards in six of UW’s last seven games. Clement said the team, especially those who were members of UW’s embarrassing 59-0 in the 2014 Big Ten title game at the hands of the eventual national champion Ohio State, is hoping to create a different perception for the Badgers on the big stage in the eyes of the college football community.
“We definitely want to reinstate why we belong and not feed off of the last time we were there,” Clement said Tuesday. “We just want to give people a different image of who the Wisconsin Badgers are in a championship environment. We’re working to get back and really have a different outcome as opposed to two years ago.”
McSorley, in his first year as a starter, leads the nation in passing yards per completion at 16.2. He leads Big Ten statistically in passing efficiency (150.9). Nationally, ranks in the top five in passes completed for 20-, 30- or 40-more yards. The Wisconsin secondary, which leads the nation with 21 interceptions, will most definitely have its hands full.
UW head coach Paul Chryst, who split Big Ten Coach of the Year honors with PSU’s James Franklin, said watching McSorley on film left him impressed.
“I love the way he competes and plays the position,” Chryst said. “He does so many things to extend plays. It looks like he’s just gaining confidence.”
But perhaps McSorley’s most dangerous asset, redshirt junior defensive end Chikwe Obasih said, is his ability to not just extend plays, but to salvage seemingly broken plays into long gains.
“He has a knack to make the big plays,” Obasih said. “You see the sidearm throws. He’s always keeping his eyes downfield. He’s a great talent that they have. They utilize him in great ways.”
The battle for the UW defense will only get harder as the game goes on. Penn State leads the nation in fourth-quarter scoring, with an average on 13 points per game during the final 15 minutes of regulation.
Both teams reported solid injury news this week. Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook practiced this week and is expected to be available Saturday for the Badgers. Barkley exited the Nittany Lions’ regular season finale against Michigan State with an ankle injury, but said on a conference call earlier this week with reporters that he will play.
When the Badgers run out of the tunnel at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night, it will represent a check-mark on the list of goals the team set earlier this year. If the confetti falls cardinal and white, that will be a fulfillment of a different goal. A College Football Playoff berth would cross yet another goal off the list, but the Badgers’ fate will rest in the hands of the committee by that point. That doesn’t bother Vince Biegel. As he and the entire Wisconsin program says, control what you can control.
“Our week-to-week approach [got us here],” Biegel said.
And right now, a Big Ten title is what Wisconsin controls.
Bumbaca’s Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Penn State 21
This has been one of the more surprising seasons in Wisconsin history. The doubters have been vanquished and the believers have been vindicated.
None of that matters now. To walk away Big Ten champs and have any shot of making the top four and earning a College Football Playoff berth, this is a must-win for both programs (still unlikely for the winner of this game, but there are worse places to spend early January than Pasadena).
I think the whole nation is in for a treat to watch the Wisconsin defense matchup against the Penn State offense. The execution levels will be high, the play-calling will be creative and the results will be electric. Penn State will reel off a couple of monster plays, UW will respond with a couple of turnovers. However, I see this matchup ending in a stalemate of greatness.
That means this game will be decided by either the UW offense or the Penn State defense. Whoever wants to make more plays will win the game. If Corey Clement and the UW rushing attack (expect plenty of Jet Sweep action) can gash the Penn State defense, I think Wisconsin wins. And I believe they’ll do just enough of that.
It will come down to the final possession. The Wisconsin defense is going to have to make a play. Who will it be? Well, that’s the pleasure of having 11 playmakers on the field at once.
The Wisconsin Badgers, 2016 Big Ten Champs. I would have never guessed it.
Cheat Sheet: Wisconsin vs. Penn State
When: Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016
Where: Indianapolis, Indiana, Lucas Oil Stadium (67,000)
TV: FOX (Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, Shannon Spake)
National Radio: Sirius/XM 81 (Gregg Daniels, Dale Hellestrae)
Local Radio: Sirius 93/XM 196 (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas, Scott Nelson)
Series Record: Wisconsin leads 9-8