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November 23, 2012

All-Out Blitz: Penn State



Welcome to this week's "All-Out Blitz," where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. The Badgers will complete their regular season schedule with a road game against the Penn State Nittany Lions, who are looking to wrap up their season with a win on senior day.

All Out Blitz: Penn State

What you need to know about Penn State

Head coach: Bill O'Brien (1nd season @ Penn State), 7-4 (5-2 Big Ten)
Penn State All-Time Record: 715-391-43 (.641)
2012 Record: 7-4 (5-2 Big Ten)
Ranking: NR (AP), NR (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 6-9-0

Did you read this?

Know Thy Foe: Penn State

Last year

Last year certainly didn't feel like a 9-4 season for the Nittany Lions. It's easy to forget that the Nittany Lions were in the thick of the division race up until their last game of the regular season against Wisconsin, which they lost 45-7 in Camp Randall Stadium. But considering the Penn State community was dealing with the gravely serious Jerry Sandusky scandal, a lack of football-related headlines isn't entirely surprising. The Nittany Lions had a top-of-the-line defense for most of the season, but went 0-3 against ranked teams. The Nittany Lions finished the season with a 30-14 loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl, desperate for a new coach to try and guide the program through one of the most troubling periods in NCAA history.

Season outlook

After an extensive search, the Nittany Lions found their man in Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. It was clear from the start that the rumors of white knights like Al Golden, Nick Saban and Dan Mullen riding in to save Happy Valley were far-fetched. O'Brien had a reputation as an offensive savant, but Penn State would be his first head coaching job, and a difficult one at that. Combine that with under 10 returning starters, the NCAA's sanctions and the subsequent flight of key players like running back Silas Redd, and things didn't look good for Penn State this season. Banned, depleted, and desperate to move on from the scandal, Penn State seemed on the verge of becoming a shell of its former self.

This year

But despite what the experts said about the Nittany Lions at the start of the season, Bill O'Brien has helped his team thrive in his first year on campus. The Nittany Lions sit at 7-4 on the season, but had a rough start to the season when they dropped back-to-back games to Ohio and Virginia. But playing Navy and Temple seemed to spark O'Brien's offense to new heights, and they rolled into Big Ten play on a two-game winning streak.

The Nittany Lions then rattled off a three-game winning streak against Illinois, Northwester, and Iowa, where they averaged 37 points and held their opponents to just about 16 per game as well. Ohio State handed the Nittany Lions their first setback of the season with a 35-23 loss, and they also fell to Nebraska in Lincoln between wins over Purdue and Indiana.

Offensively, Penn State's turnaround started with a marked improvement out of starting quarterback Matt McGloin. McGloin has thrown for 3,071 yards this season, which is just a little under his combined total from 2011 and 2010. He's completing 61.4 percent of his passes in O'Brien's system, and has 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions. McGloin is second in the Big Ten in passer rating behind Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, and throws for an average of 279.2 yards per game, which is first in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions run the ball barely more often than they pass, and McGloin's improvement is a big reason why.

Pundits were concerned about Penn State's lack of options at receiver this season, especially after the Nittany Lions lost all of their top three receivers from last season. But with McGloin throwing the ball 409 times this season, there have been plenty of opportunities for new players to get involved. Allen Robinson has stepped into the featured receiver role for the Nittany Lions, and has 73 receptions this season. Robinson also has 983 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, making him far and away the top receiving option for McGloin. Robinson leads the team with about six receptions per game, and averages 13.47 yards per catch. Tight end Kyle Carter and wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder are second and third on the team in receptions, and have combined for 880 yards and three touchdowns this season.

Penn State focuses on their air attack for the most part, but they have a respectable running game too. Zach Zwinak has made a big impact in his first season as a major contributor- he has just 167 rushing attempts this season, but has 821 yards to show for it. Zwinak didn't really start to get involved with the offense until about the start of Big Ten play, but he has five touchdowns this season, and averages 4.92 yards per carry as well. Michael Zordich also gets involved in the action: he has four touchdowns during Big Ten play, and has spelled Zwinak a few times per game this season.

On defense, the Nittany Lions will be without linebacker Michael Mauti, who leads the team in interceptions and is second on the team in total tackles. Penn State's linebacker corps is arguably one of the best in the Big Ten, but they'd certainly rather be playing with him on senior day. As a whole, the Nittany Lions allow just less than 19 points per game, and lead the conference with 30 total sacks. Linebacker Gerald Hodges leads the team with 102 tackles this season, and also has 8.5 tackles for loss. Penn state is also fifth in the Big Ten in rushing defense this season, and is fifth in the Big Ten in passer rating allowed as well.

Matchup to watch: Montee Ball vs. Penn State's rush defense

It's kind of been the story of the season, but that's what happens when a team is pretty one-dimensional. The Badgers rely on Montee Ball and James White to be successful, and they'll need them both to have good games against Penn State if they want to win. I don't think Curt Phillips' arm is good enough for the Badgers to rely on him for a whole game, so Ball and White will need to have some quality carries to make sure the Badgers can give themselves a chance on play action passes.

The pick: Penn State 24 Wisconsin 21

Earlier in the season, I thought this game would be a lot easier for the Badgers. Penn State had been gutted, and I really didn't know what to expect out of Penn State this season. Well, now we know what to expect: a well-coached football team with an effective offense. Wisconsin's secondary has been playing well, and they'll need to keep it up against the Nittany Lions if they want to spoil their senior day. And while Phillips had his moments against Ohio State, I'm not so sure about how he'll play against a quality defense on the road. The Badgers are definitely capable of pulling out a win on the road, but I think that's a lot to expect from them right now, especially if Chris Borland and Rob Havenstein can't play.

Bonus prediction: Ball breaks the touchdown record early in the first half. They'll want to keep feeding him the ball, and that means he'll get a lot of looks early on.

The point after:

Since the start of the 2009 season, Wisconsin is 7-2 following a loss, including a 3-0 record this season. The Badgers have followed their three losses with a 16-14 win over Utah State, a 31-14 win over Illinois, and a 62-14 win over Indiana.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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