Dienhart: 8 things I learned in 2016 Big Ten championship game
Penn State shocked many by upsetting Wisconsin, 38-31, to win the school’s first Big Ten championship since 2008. What’s next for the Nittany Lions, winners of nine in a row after a 2-2 start? A likely trip to the Rose Bowl to face USC.
Here are eight things that I learned after watching one of the best Big Ten championship games in the short six-year history of the event.
1. Wisconsin has a great chance to be back in Indy next season. The entire offensive line is back—headed by three players who earned all-conference mention, along with QB Alex Hornibrook. The key losses on offense? RB Cory Clement, QB Bart Houston and WR Robert Wheelwright. The defense loses LB Vince Biegel, CB Sojourn Shelton and S Leo Musso. Still, Paul Chryst will have a lot to build on in his third year in Madison. And the schedule? It won’t be as daunting as last year, with games at BYU and at Nebraska, along with visits from Iowa and Michigan.
2. The Wisconsin offensive line is a beast. The unit struggled last year because of injury and inexperience. But the unit is up to its usual standards as 2016 draws to a close. Left tackle Ryan Ramczyk is the bellwether along with center Michael Dieter and guard Beau Benzschawel. The Badgers ran for 241 yards vs. Penn State on Saturday night—but UW did come up short on a big fourth down run late in the game as it was driving for the potential tying score in the waning minutes. How much fun will Bradrick Shaw have running behind this crew in 2017?
3. The Penn State offensive line remains a work in progress. The unit struggled to deal with pressure, and it couldn’t get a consistent push in the run game as PSU had just 51 yards rushing. Better days are ahead. But this unit lacks toughness and nasty edge. And it’s not overly physical. But there is talent filling out this depth chart, including guard Connor McGovern and tackle Ryan Bates. Better days are ahead for this unit that is expertly coached by Matt Limegrover.
4. The Wisconsin linebackers are as good as advertised. The unit is led by T.J. Watt, who you could make a case for being the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He was all over the field, recovering a fumble, pressuring the quarterback and making four tackles with 1.5 TFLs. Vince Biegel is another spirited competitor who led the team with eight stops, while T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly are sophomores on the rise. Imagine if Jack Cichy and Chris Orr had not been lost to season-ending injuries.
5. Penn State QB Trace McSorley is one tough guy. Time and again, McSorley was hit by Badger defenders. But he never buckled and kept making big plays. On the night, he hit 22-of-31 passes for 384 yards with four touchdowns en route to claiming MVP. Is there a better QB in the Big Ten? Nope. In fact, McSorley probably should have been the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year instead of teammate Saquon Barkley, who ran for 83 yards on this night.
6. Penn State has bright days ahead, as this is a young team with lots of talent. The offense returns almost all of its key players. The defense has more issues, with linebacker Brandon Bell, end Evan Schwan and safety Malik Golden gone. Still, with the momentum of this program and the way James Franklin recruits, Penn State will be a force in coming years, making the already tough Big Ten East even tougher.
7. While Penn State is Big Ten champ, it probably won’t earn a playoff spot. Instead, Ohio State figures to be the Big Ten team in the field of four instead of the Nittany Lions—who beat the Buckeyes this season. So, your playoff field should look like this: 1. Alabama; 2. Clemson; 3. Ohio State; 4. Washington. Look for Bama and UW to play in Atlanta, and the Tigers and Buckeyes to play in Glendale, Ariz.
8. PSU offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead soon will be a hot coaching commodity. It’s inevitable, given how he has turned the Nittany Lion offense into a force despite not having a boffo line. PSU totaled 435 yards and scored 38 or more points in seven of the last eight games. And this Wisconsin defense was one of the nation’s best but couldn’t contain a Penn State pass game that saw Saeed Blacknall (155) and DaeSean Hamilton (118) each have huge nights.