8:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Wisconsin -3, Over/Under: 47
With the final selections for the College Football Playoff days away, one of the final Conference Championship Games to be played today is also one of the most significant, featuring a pair of teams that aren’t even in the Playoff at the moment, yet one may find themselves punching their ticket with a victory as the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers square off with the seventh-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions in the Big Ten Title Game from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. While Ohio State and Michigan have dominated the headlines in regards to the Playoff, the fact remains that NEITHER of them will be participating in tonight’s contest, as Penn State (10-2, 8-1 in Big Ten) seemingly came out of nowhere to advance to their first Conference Championship since the Joe Paterno Era. Indeed, it’s been quite a long and winding road for the Nittany Lions, who were for all intents and purposes late bloomers in 2016; James Franklin’s charges used the momentum obtained from their monumental upset over the Buckeyes to finish the Regular Season on an absolute tear en route to winning the Eastern Division. Winners of eight straight outings, this group has turned up the heat offensively, averaging a staggering 40.4 points during this streak opposed to just 29.0 points through the first four games of the schedule. Of the two contenders here, one would have to think that they have a better shot of sneaking into the Playoff if they do in fact prove to be victorious tonight, for they have something on their ledger that the Badgers don’t: A victory over Ohio State. While Wisconsin lost close games to both the Buckeyes and Wolverines, the Lions pulled a shocking 24-21 upset against the Scarlet & Red in Happy Valley; Franklin’s outfit scored the final seventeen points of the affair, blocking a late Field Goal and returning it sixty yards for a touchdown, effectively taking down the second-ranked team in the nation. Granted, they weren’t nearly as fortunate against Michigan (they got pummeled 49-10 in Ann Arbor), but that signature win has carried a lot of weight in the eyes of the CFP Selection Committee. However, that was then, and this is now. Since beating Ohio State, these kids have overwhelmed their competition, winning their final five games by a combined 151 points, with only one of them being decided by less than twenty-seven points. As their more heralded neighbors waged war last weekend, Penn State kept their eyes on the prize, needing only a win over struggling Michigan State to clinch a trip to Indianapolis. And did they ever… The 45-12 thumping of the Spartans was a statement, as they racked up 463 Total Yards, averaging an explosive 8.1 yards per play, marking the third time in the last five outings in which they’ve done so. Trailing 12-10 at Halftime, the hosts shutout the visiting side the rest of the way to the tune of 35-0, in which they scored a staggering four touchdowns of thirty-four yards or more. Quarterback Trace McSorley entered the zone, completing 17-of-23 passes (73.9%) for 376 yards and four touchdowns, airing it out on a whopping 16.3 yards per attempt. The Sophomore’s evolution has been a major component of his team’s maturation this season, completing 56.3% of his attempts for 2,976 yards (9.1 y/a), twenty-one touchdowns and just five interceptions, while also rushing for another six scores and 372 yards. He’ll need another big performance tonight, for he’ll likely be without the services of leading rusher Saquon Barkley (1,219 yards, 15 TD), who sprained his right foot in last Saturday’s victory over the Spartans. Keep an eye on the Defense though, which has also really picked up it’s play during their winning streak; since getting blasted by Michigan, Penn State has relinquished over twenty-six points only once, allowing 326.4 Total Yards. This unit has been particularly difficult to run against of late, relegating the opposition to a mere 66.8 rushing yards on a scant 1.98 yards per carry over the final five contests, while forcing a healthy eleven turnovers over that span.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 in Big Ten) knows a little something about momentum too, as they’ve won their last six games en route to dominating the Western Division of the conference. For the Badgers, the 2016 campaign can be broken down into two parts; their two meetings with Michigan and Ohio State, and everything else. Against the Wolverines and the Buckeyes, Paul Chryst’s charges came close, but suffered a pair of disappointingly narrow losses, a 14-7 slugfest against the former in Ann Arbor and a 30-23 Overtime thriller versus the latter at Camp Randall Stadium. The rest of the schedule checks just about every box imaginable; they defeated LSU (16-14) on a neutral field in the Season Opener (or as neutral as it gets at Lambeau Field), grinded out key division wins over the likes of Iowa (17-9) and Nebraska (23-17), and similar to their opponent tonight, ended the Regular Season on an offensive roll winning their final four contests by an impressive 25.5 points per game. A convergence is happening in Madison, as the Defense, which has carried this team all season, is finally being complemented by a suddenly explosive offense; after a five-game stretch in which they failed to score more than twenty-three points, the Badgers have averaged a whopping 42.7 points over the last three tilts. In many ways, it’s been a return to classic Wisconsin Football, bludgeoning the opposition in the trenches with a relentlessly physical rushing attack, rushing for 264.7 yards during this period. Senior Tailback Corey Clement (1,140 yards, 13 TD) leads a loaded Backfield featuring two more productive ball-carriers, Dare Ogunbowale (458 yards, 3 TD) and Bradrick Shaw (395 yards, 5 TD). The trio accounted for 127 of their team’s 210 rushing yards in the 31-17 victory over Minnesota in the Season Finale, with Clement and Ogunbowale accounting for all three touchdowns in the decisive Fourth Quarter. Redshirt Freshman Quarterback Alex Hornibrook suffered a concussion during the win, and was replaced by the incumbent Bart Houston, but has been cleared to participate in tonight’s encounter with the Nittany Lions. Neither Signal-Caller has been all that impressive this season, but at the very least Hornibrook has shown growth, as the youngster has completed 58.1% of his passes for 1,243 yards (6.9 y/a), eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Since the loss to the Buckeyes, he’s happily settled into the role of a Game Manager, throwing three touchdowns to just one interception over the final six games on the schedule. Granted, he hasn’t thrown more than nineteen passes in any of those games, but quite frankly, that’s the gameplan that Chryst and his Staff drew up. When you average 47.6 rushing attempts per outing, your Quarterback can pick his spots in the Pocket, and when you have an opportunistic Defense that habitually gives you possession on a short field, he can be even more selective throwing the ball. The Badgers have forced twenty-five turnovers this season, including twenty-one interceptions, the highest total in the country. They’ve registered multiple takeaways on seven occasions, including a staggering eleven in their last three affairs (all of which were interceptions). Furthermore, five different players have logged at least two picks, led by Defensive Backs Leo Musso (59 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 5 INT, 1 PD), D’Cota Dixon (49 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 4 INT, 4 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR), and Sojourn Shelton (27 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 4 INT, 12 PD, 1 FF), while T.J. Watt (younger brother of J.J.) paces the unit with 9.5 sacks and thirteen tackles for loss, while even returning an interception for a touchdown.
Predicted Outcome: Penn State 27, Wisconsin 21