It'll take a complete effort from the Lions to win in Madison in the season finale and earn a berth in the Big Ten title game
It's rare that two teams with the same record entering the final game of the season have a point spread of more than two touchdowns.
But that's a testament to how awesome Wisconsin has been at home this season: Six games, six wins, closest win by 31 points (over Nebraska).
The Badgers' QB, one-year rental Russell Wilson, leads the NCAA in pass efficiency. Their top RB, Montee Ball, less the NCAA in rushing touchdowns.
So yes, the Wisconsin offense is amazing. Almost 53 points a game at home amazing.
On defense, the Badgers have been stout at home, allowing 11 points a game. Their pass efficiency defense is among the best in the nation.
So how can Penn State win? How can a team that has had consistently poor QB play and play-calling, and hasn't scored more than 23 points against anyone not named Indiana State, Eastern Michigan or Northwestern (and including Indiana - INDIANA!), defeat the Badgers tomorrow?
Here's how - the checklist of things PSU must do to win:
- Keep Wilson in the pocket. He's an adept scrambler who makes big plays - many big plays - and stresses out the secondary when he escapes the pocket, which he does frequently. Defensive ends Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley, and OLBs Nate Stupar and Gerald Hodges, are charged with this critical task.
- Get the defense off the field/keep the offense on the field. The Wisconsin offensive line has bulldozed opponents in the second half, smeared them into the turf by pounding the running game play after play. The PSU defense must stay fresh.
- Aggressive, confident play-calling. If you've paid any attention to this blog, you know all about this issue and the pleas to play-callers Galen Hall and Jay Paterno. For the first 20-25 minutes of the 20-14 win at Ohio State last week, they did it, they called plays with confidence in their players. They must do it for 60 minutes against Wisconsin.
- And as a corollary to confident play-calling, improved red zone offense. Please-please-please-please-please, when in the red zone, use play-action rollouts to the TE or FB; high passes and/or lobs to tall receivers Derek Moye and Justin Brown; and quick-hit running plays up the middle. In that order. Please. NOTE: Better red zone defense wouldn't hurt either. As good as the PSU defense has been this season, it has been average in the red zone, against both the run and the pass.
- Beware the gadget play. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, bristling at the two beatdowns Penn State has administered the last two meetings (by a combined 86-14 in 2007/2008), would love nothing more than to break PSU's back with a well-timed trick play on offense or special teams. The Lions must always be alert for it.
- Big plays by big-time playmakers. Silas Redd, Derek Moye, Devon Still, Gerald Hodges - that quartet must be difference-makers on Saturday. The best players must come up big in the biggest games at the biggest moments.
- Consistent little plays by everyone else. For the defensive line, stay in your lane, occupy blockers, create turnover opportunities and contain Wilson. Linebackers, get Ball (and the other RB James White) and Wilson on the ground and create turnover opportunities. Secondary, keep everything in front of you, look for turnover opportunities and tackle aggressively. O-line, keep grinding it out, pound-pound-pound, and pick up any stunts or blitzes. QBs, RBs, WRs, TEs, make the plays that are there to be made, and protect the ball at all times.
- PSU's special teams must outplay Wisconsin. That means no big plays allowed (no long returns, no blocked kicks, etc.), good directional punting and make all FGs inside 48 yards. This might be a relatively short bullet point on this long checklist, but it is as essential as any.
- Stay the course, be who you are. Penn State has won this season with stellar defense and a good running game. Keep doing all of those things - and then do a little bit more, specifically with the play-calling and special teams.
- Aggressively utilize, but don't force, the Wildcat/option offense. After unveiling it last week with much success, the sporadic use of Curtis Drake and Bill Belton at QB surely must be tried again by PSU. If it's not working (Wisconsin will be ready for it), don't continue to force it. But be sure to have a few new wrinkles to help it succeed. It should be effective again.
- Do whatever it takes to keep it close. Michigan State and Ohio State kept it close vs. Wisconsin, and both won in the final minute (albeit both were road games for the Badgers). If it's less than a 7-point game entering the fourth quarter, advantage PSU. The Lions have played close games many times this season, and the only one they didn't win was Nebraska, which was the first post-Sandusky tsunami game when the team was in the midst of an extraordinarily emotionally draining experience.
- Turnovers. Force them, and don't commit them. Simple as that. In PSU's two losses this season, Alabama and Nebraska played virtually flawless games, as close as possible to perfect execution. The only flub by either came when Still busted through the line to disrupt a Nebraska handoff and force a turnover. If Wisconsin happens to be having one of those nights when it is locked in on offense, then the big-play makers - Still, Hodges, or anyone who has the opportunity - must make it happen. Strip the ball from behind, tip a pass to a teammate - whatever it takes.
So there you have it. Follow that checklist, and Penn State will pull off the upset tomorrow at Wisconsin.
Of course, it's not that simple. But everything on the checklist is attainable, and accomplishing most of the items could be enough to win.