Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2 SU, 8-3-1 ATS) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (10-2 SU, 9-2-1 ATS)
NCAA Football Week 14
Date/Time: Saturday, December 3 at 8pm ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium
by Evergreen, College Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: PSU +2/WISC -2
Over/Under Total: 46.5
The college football regular season is finished and the first week of the postseason is aptly coined Championship Week. The Big Ten will complete its conference slate with the sixth edition of the Big Ten Championship game from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Penn State and Wisconsin will square off for a league title and chance to get into the college football playoff if they get some help along the way. Neither of these teams had very lofty expectations to enter this season so having both in Indy is a bit of a surprise but a good game is on tap nonetheless. Penn State enters riding an eight game win streak but Wisconsin has won six in a row and is the team in slightly better position to crash the final four party with a win. The Big Ten has been the elite conference in all the land this year and it is time for these teams to show why they are the best of the best.
Wisconsin has been referred to as the best two loss team in the land and the online betting sites like the Badgers as two point favorites for this tilt. This will be the first meeting between the schools since the 2013 but both will be looking to continue the success they have found while playing a conference foe. The Lions are 7-0-1 against the spread in the last eight, all against a Big Ten opponent and the Badgers are 6-1-1 ATS over the same stretch against an opponent with a winning record. Wisconsin finished the regular season ranked 7th by the Sagarin computers while Penn State checked in at 14th. Both teams finished 2-2 against top-30 competition during the season with the Badgers schedule ranking 20th, and the Lions slate at 39th overall. The Sagarin offense-defense method is calling for a 23-20 Wisconsin win but the margin is closer to 2.6 to nearly mimic the Vegas line with the metrics liking the under.
I doubt you could have found many people willing to predict Penn State to represent the East Division before the season started but the Lions splashed onto the scene with a 24-21 win against Ohio State and haven’t looked back. That win erased much of the sting of an earlier 49-10 loss at Michigan but now Penn State needs to topple a Wisconsin team that was a few plays away from beating both the Wolverines and the Buckeyes. The Lions are a balanced team on offense and while they don’t have a defense that is as statistically strong as their opponent, the PSU defensive line is one of the best in the conference. That line is talented, deep and the subbing scheme allows fresh defenders in all of their packages. The linebackers are allowed to work as the front gobbles up blockers and Penn State enters the week 20th in total yards allowed. They have given up a few more points than they would have liked on a few occasions but a risk/reward style has also produced 37 sacks. The Badgers are not coming in with a juggernaut offense so Penn State’s has the potential to be the game winning unit with a good performance.
Wisconsin will be making its fourth appearance in Indy but their presence here this season is also a bit of a surprise. A gauntlet of a schedule that included LSU, Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska was supposed to knock the Badgers back but they have responded well on nearly every occasion. The Badgers have a championship level defense that they have leaned on while the offense has tried to find its way. Wisconsin allows just 292 total yards per game including just 100 on the ground and the third fewest points at 13.7 per contest. Penn State is a good offense but the edge is with Wisconsin in that matchup as the Lions do not have the depth of playmaking ability that is necessary to get the Badger D out of position. The Wisconsin offense has improved over the last month or so and that progression must continue Saturday or points could be hard to come by as they were against good teams like Michigan and LSU.
These teams are relatively healthy but do keep an eye on a couple of key injuries. PSU running back Saquon Barkley is probable with a foot injury. He leads the team with 1219 rushing yards and leads the conference with 15 rushing touchdowns. He appears to be fine but foot injuries for running backs can be tricky. Wisconsin could be without QB Alex Horibrook after the sophomore banged the back of his helmet against the turf last weekend. The impact of his potential absence is limited by the fact that Wisconsin has been using two quarterbacks for weeks now and Bart Houston has played well in the timeshare. Houston, the opening day starter, is strong armed and also brings a little more wiggle with his ability to run some read-option. If both are healthy, expect Hornibrook to start and Houston to come in after a couple of series and split time throughout. The duo has thrown for 2,155 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Trace McSorley mans the Penn State helm and has been the offensive MVP for the team. He has completed 56% of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards and has a terrific 21-to-5 touchdown to interception ratio. He’s added 372 yards and six touchdowns on the ground and that ability to utilize his legs will often occupy an opposing linebacker. Chris Godwin and TE Mike Gesicki have combined to catch over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns but the playmaking is pretty limited to those two and Barkley. Wisconsin is holding their opponents to just 26% on third down conversions in part because their secondary is talented across the board. Penn State might struggle to find success in the air if another receiver doesn’t emerge Saturday.
The Badger run game isn’t running at the peaks efficiency we have seen in previous seasons but Corey Clement has broken 100 yards in each of the last six games and a three headed backfield has emerged. Bradrick Shaw is another thumper like Clement and Dare Ogunbowale is a more slippery runner that has also seen success in the screen game. Those three will have to solve the riddle of that strong PSU line but Wisconsin will most definitely rack up the attempts in hopes of wearing another defense down. Jazz Peavy leads the team with 582 receiving yards and five scores but has become a dangerous weapon while running the fly sweep. He took one for 74 yards last week against Minnesota and is averaging 15.5 yards per carry from that look. The passing game is used only as needed but both Houston and Hornibrook have delivered some big throws in play action and those opportunities will be there if PSU overplays the run.
These teams are ranked right next to each other and the opening line of Wisconsin at -1 makes this look like a virtual coin flip. I think the teams are polished and know exactly how to go about their business but I think Wisconsin is just a step ahead in what it is going to take to win. Wisconsin is the better running team, converts more third downs and is leads the nation at over 35 minutes in time of possession. That methodical approach on offense keeps the Badger defense fresh and pressures the opponent into trying to move fast if they get behind. Penn State appears ready to win this game but they lack that truly dynamic playmaker like a J.T. Barrett and they won’t be able to get enough production against a defense that is making all the right calls. It is a grinder of a game and that is exactly how Wisconsin likes it. Bucky gets a 23-17 win.
Evergreen’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: Wisconsin
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