The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.
Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
ND: The Lions had some special teams meltdowns last Saturday to lose yet another close game to Nebraska. The one thing that this team has demonstrated is a “never give up” mentality. They’ll need it this Saturday against a very talented Wisconsin team. Wisconsin only has two losses this season – Arizona State and Ohio State. And, one could argue that should have won the Arizona State game had it not been for a bizarre ending. The Badgers also only lost by 7 points to Ohio State. They are playing really good football and are doing their best to make a late push to secure a spot at the Capital One bowl game.
MH: It was a meltdown, but it can’t be completely ignored that PSU had another season here they qualified for a bowl game despite the NCAA’s best efforts. Now they look to closeout against an impressive Wisconsin squad that has been rolling as of late.
Who: Penn State at No. 15 Wisconsin
When: Saturday, November 23 at 3:30 pm ET, 12:30 am PT
Where: Camp Randall in Madison, WI
Series: Wisconsin leads 9-7
Line: Wisconsin is favored by 24 points.
OTHER BIG GAMES
ND: The Iron Bowl is a monster this year. No. 1 Alabama travels to face No. 4 Auburn. A strong showing by A.J. McCarron could help him get into the Heisman discussion with Jameis Winston’s legal woes getting attention. Meanwhile, QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason lead one of the most exciting rushing attacks in the country. Will they be able to gain yards on the vaunted Alabama defense? Will Auburn be able to slow down Alabama? Those are just 2 of the reasons to tune into this one.
MH: It’s rivalry week which sets up some decent matchups like No. 6 Clemson against No. 10 South Carolina and No. 22 UCLA against No. 23 USC. But there are also some anticipated lopsided battles like No. 2 Florida State against a hapless Florida coming off a loss to Georgia Southern and No. 3 Ohio State at Michigan coming off a loss to Iowa.
ND: This is a truly historical pick. In the history of the Blitz, I have never picked Notre Dame to pull an upset. But, records are meant to be broken. I really like Notre Dame to beat Stanford out at the farm. Notre Dame has tripped up this year but they were able to beat a very physical BYU team last week and I think that bodes well for the Irish this week. I’m not convinced that Stanford is really the team that everyone thought when they knocked off Oregon. I think this will be a tough, close low-scoring game with the Irish getting a little luck down the stretch.
MH: I don't see it, but anything can happen in a rivalry clash. I think No. 21 Texas A&M could spoil No. 5 Missouri’s week as the Aggies try to avoid a four loss season. Missouri is three points from being undefeated, but “Johnny Heisman” is looking to avoid what would be a mediocre season with four losses.
ND: Earlier in the season, the Lions relied on the arm of Christian Hackenberg but that has shifted in recent weeks. The offensive line and the running of Zack Zwinak have driven the offense. Bill Belton should play this week after missing last week with an illness. The offensive line has been playing very well and have been opening up some great running lanes. But, credit should also be given to the TEs. All three were very productive in the running game. The Lions will need to establish the run in order to get Hackenberg some relief. Plus, a successful run means that Hackenberg can also get good looks on the play action and bootlegs. This game, more than any others, will come down to Christian Hackenberg’s ability to throw the ball on 3rd down and get that ball to receivers other than Allen Robinson. Robinson, who was left off of the Biletnikoff finalist list, is accounting for more than 47% of the team’s receiving yards. This needs to change. The Lions have to get the ball to other players and someone else has to stretch the field. The Lions were able to move the ball against Nebraska but were unable to string drives together into scoring drives. In order to beat Wisconsin, this has to change.
Defensively, the Lions were actually pretty strong against the run this past weekend. Ameer Abdullah was able to bust a 50 yard run but outside of that run, he only gained 97 yards on 24 carries. The run attack of Wisconsin poses different challenges than Nebraska did but the front seven have improved and the inclusion of LB Brandon Bell has really made an improvement. The front seven will have to be focused on running sideline to sideline to defend against not only the power football running attack of Wisconsin but also the very dangerous “jet sweep”. The Lions will need to keep their feet moving and will have to shed blocks better than they have all season. In the secondary, Jordan Lucas continues to be a real bright point. The safeties will be challenged to help out in run support while making sure that TE Jacob Pedersen and WR Jarred Abbrederis don’t get a free run down the field. More importantly, the speed of the safeties has been less than impressive so they will need to take good angles to make sure that RBs James White and Melvin Gordon don’t break long runs. The secondary has a tough task in this one but they will need to come up big to help the Lions get some stops on defense.
MH: Zach Zwinak was a machine once again last week. Running over and around the Husker front. The baffling part of it all is that the coaching staff ignored the ground game in the second quarter – a mistake for PSU. The offensive line has been improving on pass and run plays. Hackenberg has a solid game, but continues to make haphazard decisions he has to avoid in a game of this caliber. Allen Robinson will be a major weapon in this game, but he cannot be the only target to see action. It was good to se Jesse James make some plays, including the 46-yard touchdown. Hackenberg has to get the ball spread around and the receivers have to get involved early and often. There have been way too many dropped balls from targets like Brandon Felder. PSU cannot overcome their mental mistakes against a squad like the Badgers.
On the other side the PSU front has to continue to plug up holes and get pressure on the pocket. It was disappointing to see essentially Nebraska’s third strong quarterback in Kellogg find consistent success for Nebraska. As you said, Nirav, the safeties are a big concern in this one, both with their stuggles on positioning and speed. This could be a hayday for Wisconsin. The secondary has to look themselves in the mirror and decided what kind of unit they want to be. Their lackluster play has been an Achilles for Penn State all season.
SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE
ND: Coach Gary Andersen may be in his first year but the offense hasn’t changed much at all. The Badgers still run the ball and use the play action pass to get the ball down the field. The Badgers are the only team in the country to have two players that have over 1,000 yards rushing. James White has tallied 1,281 yards on the ground but Melvin Gordon has been just amazing. Gordon burst onto the scene last year in very limited action. But, this year, he has rushed for 1,375 yards and a stunning 8.2 yards per carry. Gordon has remarkable speed by the time he hits the line of scrimmage. He’s just a sophomore and will continue to torch Big Ten defenses for years to come especially as James White graduates this year. The Badgers will continue to use the jet sweep run where a player, like Gordon, will line up out wide and will come in motion to get a handoff at the snap. Mark, watch for the Badgers to fake the jet sweep to pull the safeties up and then try a long ball to Jarred Abbrederis. Joel Stave has taken just about every snap under center for the Badgers. He has a good arm and is able to run if needed but that is not his priority.
While the offense didn’t change under Coach Andersen, the defense did. Coach Anderesen put in 3-4 defense and it has been very successful. It has allowed the Badgers to get that extra linebacker in the game, which has helped LB Chris Borland to run a bit more freely. He has amazing instincts and tackles well. He’s not the fastest linebacker in the league but he is probably the smartest and that has helped him be so successful. The other LB that jumps out is Brandon Kelly. The senior LB is leading the team in sacks and TFLs. He will play up at the line of scrimmage and is very good in running situations. It will be interesting to see how the Badgers adapt to more TEs going out in patterns than is the norm. The Badgers also have a very young star in the secondary. Freshman Sojourn Shelton has picked off four passes this year from his corner spot. For sure he will draw the matchup against Allen Robinson. This defense is very good at stopping the run and have done a great job of getting pressure on the QB. Though Michigan State gets all the credit for having an amazing defense, Wisconsin is not far behind. Wisconsin is No. 6 in the country in total defense giving up only 278.5 yards per game.
MH: Nirav, the jet sweep is dangerous and fun to say. Wisconsin has that one-two punch on the ground with White and Gordon, which plays into Penn State’s strength defending the run, but having two power backs be a tall order for Penn State given the fresh legs the Badgers can toss out against the Lion front. I don’t suspect well see Anderson put the game on the shoulders of Stave, unless Wisconsin is in a dogfight. But they will likely use his arm to open things out in the flat and draw out the PSU linebackers from stuffing the inside lanes.
Wisconsin runs an unconventional 3-4 as you mentioned. Borland is no doubt playing with a chip on his shoulder since he was snubbed for the Butkus Award. Penn State needs to step up and get the tight ends into the mix consistently into this game to go toe-to-toe with Wisconsin’s linebackers. Again, the PSU passing game has to show some variety and balance to keep the Badgers guessing on their reads. Wisconsin’s weak point may be their secondary in terms of youth, but the defensive backs are quick. Hackenberg has to run through his progression but keep his metal clock wound tight to keep the pressure off and avoid costly mistakes.
MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY
ND: A big part of what Penn State needs to do is establish the run on offense. Wisconsin is one of the best run defenses in the country yielding 99.1 yards per game, which is 7th best in the nation. Penn State will be facing a 3-4 defense so we’ll see how well the offensive lineman are able to adjust and get their hands on the Badger linebackers. Meanwhile, the Badger linebackers will be facing a dynamic duo in Zack Zwinak and Bill Belton. This should be quite a battle.
MH: On the other side Penn State’s run defense against the dynamic duo of White and Gordon for the Badgers should be an interesting clash that has major repercussions for this game.PSU has shown a propensity to clog up lanes and stuff the run, but having two 1,000+ yard rushers will keep things fresh against the Lion front.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ND: There is no way that Penn State can outslug the Badgers. They have to generate turnovers and they have to covert those turnovers into points. The key for the Lions is going to be getting turnovers so that they can work with a short field.
MH: Special teams destroyed Penn State is a wide variety of ways last week. If even a sliver of this occurs this weekend it will be over quick. All aspects of Penn State’s special teams have to play respectably to give the Lions a legitimate shot.
ND: Wisconsin's ability to get their run game to the edge will be an issue for Penn State. The Badgers' run defense will come up huge and Hackenberg will struggle trying to throw the ball under duress on the road.
Wisconsin 34, Penn State 17
MH: Penn State's road woes are likely to continue against the nation's eighth rushing defense and a squad that has been rolling over conference foes.
Wisconsin 35, Penn State 20
Until next time,
Fight On State!