The timing couldn't have been worse. Penn State players need to watch all the film they can lay their hands on this week as they prepare to head to the unfriendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin fields the Big Ten's best rushing attack. Redshirt freshman P.J. Hill, a 242-pound bruiser who has evoked comparisons to Ron Dayne, is averaging a league-best 135.8 yards a game, although his availability is in question after his neck was injured last Saturday in the Badgers' 30-24 comeback victory over Illinois. Even if Hill can't play, the other running backs are just as substantial - 197-pound tailback Lance Smith is the only Badgers runner to weigh less than 240 pounds - and the line is classic Wisconsin, which is to say it's freakishly large.
That brings us to Thomas. A 6-8, 313-pound senior, he is considered by many to be the best offensive lineman in the country. As such, he may pose the toughest challenge for the Lions this weekend.
“The guy's big,” said Gaines, a 263-pound redshirt sophomore defensive end. “He's a great tackle. He gets off the ball quick, he's real strong. But my plan is to go at him. You can't hesitate on a guy like that. He's one of the best tackles in the country, but you can't hesitate. You have to take it to him.”
The Nittany Lions are expecting a physical challenge Saturday. Even though they changed coaches in the off-season, with former defensive coordinator Bret Bielema replacing Barry Alvarez, the Badgers haven't changed their approach on offense. They lead the Big Ten in rushing yards (185.4 per game) and rushing touchdowns (20) and are second to Michigan in rushing attempts (377).
“They're a powerhouse football team,” Gaines said. “A lot of teams try to trick you, but they try to run it down your throat. That's what I like about their offense.”
The Nittany Lions may be well equipped to meet the challenge. They are allowing only 95.2 yards a game on the ground. Their run defense has stiffened as the season has gone on, although Illinois quarterback Juice Williams gave them some problems two weeks ago. The ground game Penn State will see on Saturday is of course more conventional than the Illini's option attack. Senior quarterback John Stocco is unlikely to beat Penn State with his feet. He's a passer, and a good one, with his completion percentage (61.7) and pass-efficiency rating (152.6) both ranking second in the conference behind Ohio State's Troy Smith.
Some see the game against the 17th-ranked Badgers as a chance for Penn State prove itself after losses to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan. That's fine with Gaines.
“You've got to prove yourself every game, every play,” he said. “Every time you put your hand in the ground, you're signing your signature. You're letting people know who you are.”