Penn State vs. Wisconsin: A Big Ten Football Championship Tale of the Tape

Penn State vs. Wisconsin: A Big Ten Football Championship Tale of the Tape

2016 Football Championship

The game kicks off at 8:17 p.m. ET on Fox. Our pregame coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET Saturday with “BTN Tailgate.”

Let’s build out a tale of the tape between Big Ten title opponents Penn State and Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday. It’s a heavyweight bout no one envisioned back in August with the league championship—and maybe a playoff bid—on the line.

This is Wisconsin’s fourth all-time appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game (2-1), while Penn State is making its first-ever appearance. The Nittany Lions have won four of their last five games against the Badgers.

Both teams enter this contest riding long win streaks: Wisconsin has won its last six games and Penn State its last eight.

Who has the edge at each position heading into Saturday? Check it out.

***

QUARTERBACK
Penn State: Trace McSorley has been a revelation, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors in his first season as a starter. He has been the perfect triggerman for the Nittany Lions’ new spread offense. McSorley has a knack for hitting the big pass play and is No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and No. 2 in total offense.

Wisconsin: The Badgers like to play both Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston, as each brings something different to the table. Hornibrook is a redshirt freshman lefty with accuracy and running skills. Houston is a senior with a big arm who can sometimes force the action. Hornibrook hurt his head last week and is listed as questionable. How will he perform if he plays?

EDGE: PENN STATE

***

RUNNING BACK
Penn State: Saquon Barkley is the freshly minted Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for 1,219 yards and 15 TDs. The guy is a man-child. And there is quality depth behind him, including stud freshman Miles Sanders.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have a bruiser in Corey Clement, a first-team All-Big Ten pick by the media who has rushed for 1,140 yards. And he is on fire, rushing for 100 yards in each of the last four games and six of the last seven. There are good options behind him, including Dare Ogunbowale. UW likes to use speedy wideout Jazz Peavy on jet sweeps; he averages 15.5 yards on 17 carries.

EDGE: EVEN

***

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Penn State: This is one of the most talented corps in the Big Ten led by Chris Godwin, who has 47 catches. He is joined by DeAndre Thompkins, DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall, among others. And Mike Gesicki is one of the top tight ends in the league, notching 44 catches for the No. 3 pass offense in the Big Ten (251.0 ypg).

Wisconsin: Jazz Peavy has emerged as the go-to wideout, injecting an element of speed into the powerful Badger offense. He has a team-high 39 catches and can get behind a defense. Robert Wheelwright is another solid option. And Wisconsin has a good tight end in Troy Fumagalli, who has 38 receptions.

EDGE: PENN STATE

***

OFFENSIVE LINE
Penn State: This group struggled in 2015 but made strides under Matt Limegrover, the former offensive coordinator at Minnesota. It’s still a young group led by center Brian Gaia, helping the Nittany Lions rank No. 4 in the league in offense (429.7 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring (36.6 ppg).

Wisconsin: This unit has made greater strides all season with left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, guard Beau Benzschawel and center Michael Dieter leading the way. They help Wisconsin rank No. 4 in the Big Ten in rushing (201.5 ypg). It has taken a while, but this unit finally is looking like a vintage Badger front.

EDGE: WISCONSIN

***

DEFENSIVE LINE
Penn State: This unit lost three 2015 starters in Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib and Antony Zettel, all big-timers. But this group developed nicely, led by ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan along with tackle Parker Cothren, a trio that helped Penn State rank second in the Big Ten with 37 sacks so far in 2016.

Wisconsin: Maybe the most underrated aspect of a standout Badger defense. Nose man Conor Sheehy is the lynchpin up front in this 3-4 scheme that’s very active under coordinator Justin Wilcox. Ends Alec James and Chikwe Obasih also are anchors, especially vs. the run. This is the No. 3 defense in the Big Ten (292.0 ypg) and No. 2 in scoring (13.7 ppg). Who needs former Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda?

EDGE: EVEN

***

LINEBACKERS
Penn State: This group was ravaged by injury earlier this season, but it has developed nicely. Brandon Bell sets the tone. He’s a tackling machine. And Jason Cabinda is a physical force who also can play in space for the No. 4 defense in the Big Ten (346.8 ypg). New defensive coordinator Brent Pry has done a nice job this year after Bob Shoop ditched State College for Tennessee.

Wisconsin: This may be the top set of linebackers in the Big Ten. And T.J. Watt is one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. Vince Biegel is another force who will play on Sundays. And T.J. Edwards is underrated, while Ryan Connelly has been a revelation. Too bad Chris Orr and Jack Cichy got hurt. UW has the top rushing defense in the Big Ten (100.8 ypg), and it’s largely because of this unit.

EDGE: WISCONSIN

***

SECONDARY
Penn State: Marcus Allen is a future pro who delivers the goods. He’s a linebacker masquerading as a safety. John Reid is the top corner, while Grant Haley was the hero of the Ohio State win. This group can play.

Wisconsin: This is a strong unit led by stud safety Leo Musso, a heat-seeking missle. And Sojourn Shelton is one of the Big Ten’s best corners. This group just makes plays. D’Cota Dixon is another good safety for a defense that has a conference-best 21 picks. And don’t forget about corner Derrick Tindal, who is underrated for a secondary that’s part of a defense that is No. 3 in pass efficiency defense and has yielded a Big Ten-low eight TD passes.

EDGE: WISCONSIN

***

SPECIAL TEAMS
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have a nice punter-kicker tandem. Blake Gillikin is No. 3 in the Big Ten in punting with a 41.8-yard average. Tyler Davis is No. 2 in the league with 21 field goals on 23 attempts (91.3 percent). But his long is just 40 yards. The return game hasn’t excelled.

Wisconsin: Rafael Gaglianone has missed most of the year with a back injury, forcing Andrew Endicott into action. He’s been OK, hitting 11-of-16 field goals with a long of 46. Anthony Lotti averages 37.7 yards on punts. The return game lacks pop.

EDGE: PENN STATE

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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