04 November 2006

Penn State vs. Wisconsin

This afternoon Penn State visits one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten, Camp Randall Stadium, as the Nittany Lions take on the Wisconsin Badgers in Penn State's fourth (and third on the road) and final game against a ranked opponent.

Wisconsin is at home and favored by a touchdown, but the fate of star running back P.J. Hill is unknown. The freshman Hill has rushed for over 1,200 yards this season, making Wisconsin the 19th ranked running offense in the nation and the Big Ten leader (185.4 rushing yards per game). That Badger rushing attack matches up against the Nittany Lion defense, which is ranked 19th in the nation against the run (95.2 rushing yards per game). Whether or not Hill plays could be the key to which team wins this matchup.

All these signs--home game for Wisconsin, favored by a touchdown, leading the Big Ten in rushing--point to a clear advantage for the Badgers. Likewise, Penn State's weaknesses are evident each week--a struggling offensive line, an offense that can move the ball but becomes anemic in the red zone, and inconsistencies in the kicking game.

However, Wisconsin's schedule is horribly weak. The only game they played against a ranked opponent was against then #6 Michigan, a game in which the Badgers lost 13-27. Furthermore, they've only beaten two Big Ten teams with a winning record--Purdue and Indiana. Wisconsin also gets the free pass against Ohio State this year. So this 8-1 Badgers team, currently ranked #17, hasn't really beaten anyone of significance.

That being said, neither has Penn State. Purdue is their only Big Ten win against a team with a winning record. Still, the schedule has been much tougher--including three teams who were ranked in the Top 5 when the Nittany Lions faced them.

The matchup today is against a team with a weak schedule that hasn't really been tested. Beyond the loss to Michigan, the Badgers needed a big comeback to win last week against Illinois. Other than that, the schedule has been cake.

This game is likely the battle for third place in the Big Ten. With Ohio State and Michigan probably destined for BCS bowls, the winner of this game is likely off to Tampa, Florida for the Capital One Bowl (a New Year's Day bowl game usually played by the #2 team in the Big Ten). The loser will likely head to Orlando for the Outback Bowl (also a New Year's Day game). Both are decent, but the Capital One Bowl really ought to be the goal, as it is one of the marquee matchups outside of the BCS games.

Without P.J. Hill at full strength, this game is tough for the Badgers. On top of that, Penn State is the second best team they've played all year. Penn State will have to avoid some of its characteristics mistakes, but today is as good a day as any to drop the bad habits. Wisconsin has gone through most of the season on cruise control with Hill leading the way, but this afternoon they're running into a significant roadblock. Penn State 20, Wisconsin 17.
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