How Nit­tany Li­ons can beat Wis­con­sin: 2 key matchups

Centre Daily Times - - Sports - BY JOSH MOYER AND JOHN MCGONIGAL jmoyer@cen­tredaily.com jm­c­go­ni­gal@cen­tredaily.com

There’s been a lot of dis­ap­point­ment so far this sea­son with both No. 20 Penn State and un­ranked Wis­con­sin. And both need a win at noon Satur­day in Happy Val­ley to help turn around their sea­sons. Here are the key matchups to Satur­day’s game that we think should go a long way in de­ter­min­ing the win­ner:

JOHN MCGONIGAL: WIS­CON­SIN RB JONATHAN TAY­LOR VS. PENN STATE’S FRONT-SEVEN

Last sea­son, Jonathan Tay­lor caught the coun­try’s at­ten­tion. The Wis­con­sin back snapped Adrian Peter­son’s FBS record for rush­ing yards by a fresh­man with 1,977 on 299 car­ries (6.6 yards per at­tempt). He fin­ished sixth in the Heis­man Tro­phy vot­ing, was a con­sen­sus sec­ond-team All-Amer­i­can and spear­headed the BadgLas ers’ run to a 13-1 record.

Re­turn­ing with high ex­pec­ta­tions, the sopho­more opened as West­gate Ve­gas Su­per Book’s third Heis­man fa­vorite in Au­gust. Now? Tay­lor isn’t listed as one of nine con­tenders on Bo­vada and gar­nered just one third­place vote in The Ath­letic’s weekly Heis­man straw poll.

Twelve months re­moved from his rise to star­dom, Tay­lor seems like an af­ter­thought. Be­cause Wis­con­sin is 6-3, not rolling to the Big Ten ti­tle game un­de­feated with Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off as­pi­ra­tions, the lime­light has faded. But he’s putting up the same num­bers.

Tay­lor leads col­lege foot­ball with 1,363 rush­ing yards. If Wis­con­sin wins the Big Ten West and reaches the con­fer­ence ti­tle game, the back is on pace for 2,120 yards; if not, he’s pro­jected to get to 1,969 — only seven be­hind his stun­ning 2017 to­tal. Tay­lor’s 11 rush­ing touch­downs sit atop the Big Ten, and his 36 rushes of 10 yards or more are third-most in the coun­try.

“He’s a phys­i­cal back. He likes to get north-south. He’s not afraid to lower his shoul­der and try to run you over,” Penn State linebacker Jan John­son said. “But he also has that topend speed. When­ever he gets to the sec­ond level, he can take off.”

Of course, Tay­lor is guided by a highly-touted of­fen­sive line. The Badgers had three block­ers — Beau Ben­zschawel, David Ed­wards and Michael Di­eter — named to the AP’s pre­sea­son All-Amer­ica teams.

The onus will be on Penn State’s en­tire front seven, not just the de­fen­sive line, to stop Wis­con­sin’s rush­ing at­tack. De­fen­sive tack­les Kevin Givens and Robert Wind­sor have to be ready to be worn down; pass­rush­ers Sha­reef Miller, Ye­tur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney must be pre­pared to hold the edge; and John­son, Cam Brown, Micah Par­sons and Koa Farmer need to keep ev­ery­thing or­ga­nized and fill in the gaps.

Wis­con­sin’s pass­ing of­fense re­ally isn’t much of a threat, rank­ing 110th na­tion­ally in yards per game. Alex Horni­brook — a mid­dling sig­nal-caller to be­gin with — is in con­cus­sion pro­to­col. If he can’t go, it’ll be Jack Coan un­der cen­ter. In his lone start, Coan com­pleted 20 of 31 passes for a mea­ger 158 yards in a 31-17 loss to North­west­ern two weeks ago.

“Our pri­mary con­cern go­ing into al­most ev­ery week is to stop the run. Ob­vi­ously with them be­ing a run-heavy team, that’s our main con­cern,” John­son said. “That’s what we’re re­ally fo­cused on.”

JOSH MOYER: PENN STATE QBS VS. WIS­CON­SIN SEC­ONDARY

If you watched last Satur­day’s loss, you prob­a­bly don’t need this key matchup ex­plained. Trace McSor­ley suf­fered his worst game as a starter (5-of-13 pass­ing, 1 in­ter­cep­tion) and, in re­lief, Tommy Stevens threw a pick-six.

Wis­con­sin’s de­fen­sive back­field is just fine. It’s young, the scheme is sim­pli­fied, and it’s been ham­pered by in­juries — but it’s still been ef­fec­tive. Not elite, but good. This isn’t a key matchup be­cause it’s strength-on-strength. The real rea­son is sim­ply be­cause Penn State’s pass­ing game is the ques­tion mark of the week.

Stevens ac­knowl­edged Wed­nes­day that McSor­ley “re-in­jured” his leg against Michi­gan late in the game Satur­day. So that brings up more ques­tions than an­swers: Will McSor­ley play ev­ery snap this week­end? Is he in worse shape now than a week ago? Will Stevens be asked to step up? And, if he is, can he be suc­cess­ful?

Against an ag­gres­sive de­fense that al­lows big plays, there’ll be op­por­tu­nity here for Penn State — but it’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict whether it can cap­i­tal­ize. Wis­con­sin team leader and safety D’Cota Dixon will fi­nally make his re­turn this week fol­low­ing an in­jury and, sta­tis­ti­cally, the Badgers boast the sec­ond-best pass­ing-ef­fi­ciency de­fense that the Nit­tany Li­ons have faced so far. (Wis­con­sin is ranked No. 33; only No. 1-rated Michi­gan has been bet­ter.)

Penn State isn’t good enough in the trenches to be a one-di­men­sional of­fense. So, if the pass­ing game sput­ters and the re­ceivers can’t cre­ate big plays, the en­tire of­fense is in trou­ble.

If McSor­ley is “on” and at 100 per­cent, we’ve seen what he can do to good de­fenses. Just look at the 2016 Big Ten cham­pi­onship. But if he’s not? Well, he had a QBR of 3.5 Satur­day — a rate worse than Rut­gers’ Arthur Sitkowski in seven of nine games this year.

How Penn State’s pass­ing game fares this week­end will go a long way in de­ter­min­ing how fans view both of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ricky Rahne and this 2018 sea­son. It might be one of the most im­por­tant matchups of the year.

MORRY GASH AP

Wis­con­sin’s Jonathan Tay­lor runs for a touch­down against Rut­gers on Nov. 3 in Madi­son, Wis. He’s the na­tion’s lead­ing rusher this year.

MORRY GASH AP

Wis­con­sin’s D’Cota Dixon re­turns this week af­ter an in­jury, bol­ster­ing a strong Badgers pass de­fense.

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