Dienhart: Eight early thoughts as we head to Indy
The Big Ten title game is set: Penn State vs. Wisconsin.
This is a matchup few could have envisioned in August, when most pundits felt Ohio State would meet Iowa. These teams are hot, as Penn State has won eight in a row and Wisconsin has won six. And they did not meet in the regular season. In fact, they haven’t met since 2013, when Penn State won 31-24 in Madison, as the Nittany Lions have won five of the last seven meetings. But Wisconsin leads the all-time series 9-8.
This will be the Nittany Lions’ first trip to the Big Ten title game, while the Badgers will be making their league-high fourth junket to Indianapolis under their third different coach (Bret Bielema, Gary Andersen, Paul Chryst). UW is 2-1 with wins in 2011 and 2012 and a loss in 2014.
Here are eight early thoughts before I start packing for Indianapolis:
1. If Penn State wins, will the Nittany Lions earn a playoff bid? Their resume will be good, but not stellar, riding an eight-game winning streak to Indy with victories vs. No. 2 Ohio State and Wisconsin (in the title game). Penn State was No. 7 in the most recent College Football Playoff poll. It is not crazy to think PSU could win the Big Ten title game—and not make the playoff. Instead, the committee could opt to take Ohio State, which lost at Penn State this year but arguably has the most impressive resume in the nation with wins at Oklahoma, at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska and vs. Michigan.
2. If Wisconsin wins, you have to think the Badgers are a lock for the playoff. UW has victories over three teams ranked by the AP at the time of the game, taking down No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 7 Nebraska. A win vs. Penn State would be another quality triumph. The two losses are high-quality, falling at No. 4 Michigan and vs. No. 2 Ohio State in OT. Winners of six in a row, UW was No. 6 in the most recent College Football Playoff poll.
3. Ohio State may make the playoff regardless of who wins the Big Ten title. The Buckeyes have a glossy resume with wins at No. 14 Oklahoma, at No. 8 Wisconsin, vs. No. 10 Nebraska and vs. 3 Michigan. The lone loss: at Penn State. Few—if any—teams in America can match that list of accomplishments. The Buckeyes were No. 2 in the most recent College Football Playoff poll. The CFP committee has never taken a non-conference champ in the brief two-year history of the event. The Bucks may buck the trend.
4. The best unit matchup will be Penn State’s offense vs. Wisconsin’s defense. Each group is playing very well. The Nittany Lions have scored 39 or more points in each of their last five games, as Trace McSorley is the hottest QB in the Big Ten. But Wisconsin has one of the nation’s top defenses that is especially tough vs. the run. Who will win this battle?
5. Is Alex Hornibrook OK? The Wisconsin redshirt freshman signal-caller didn’t play in the second half vs. Minnesota after taking a hard hit and suffering an apparent head injury. If he can’t go next Saturday, Bart Houston will be the man. He is a savvy senior who lost the starting job to Hornibrook in late September. Paul Chryst has played both all season. If Hornibrook can’t go, that will take away a dimension to the UW attack. Entering Saturday, Hornibrook completed 100 of 171 passes for 1,214 yards and 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Houston was 60 of 94 for 789 yards, 5 scores and 3 interceptions.
6. Is Saquon Barkley OK? The star Penn State running back left the Michigan State game in the third quarter with an injury to his lower right leg. He arguably is the Big Ten’s top back, and a weapon the Nittany Lions will need vs. a Wisconsin defense that is No. 1 in the Big Ten vs. the run led by stud LBs Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt. Penn State has other nice options at running back in Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson and Mark Allen. But none are of Barkley’s ilk.
7. Can Penn State slow down Wisconsin RB Corey Clement? The guy is hot, running for over 100 yards in the last four games and six of the last seven. The Nittany Lions have a boffo front seven led by ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan and linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda. Can they slow Clement?
8. Watch the battle between the Badger secondary and the Nittany Lions pass catchers. PSU’s Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, DaeSean Hamilton will be troublesome for Badger corners Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal. And who will cover Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki?