Sports Capital Journalism Program
The Case for Penn State:
The Penn State Nittany Lions (No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings) enter tonight’s Big Ten Championship against the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers as slight underdogs. The matchup pits a hot Penn State offense against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. The Nittany Lion offense is averaging 40.4 points per game during its current eight-game winning streak. Wisconsin boasts a defense that ranks third in scoring in the FBS allowing only 13.7 points per game.
Penn State’s high-scoring attack is led by sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley leads the Big Ten in total touchdowns with 17 and averages 101.6 rushing yards per game. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to run wild against the third-best rushing defense in the nation, but if anyone is up the challenge, you’ve got to think it’s this season’s Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
All eyes will be on the Penn State offense versus Wisconsin defense matchup, but the game may be decided by the Nittany Lion defense. Penn State’s defensive unit ranks 20th in the FBS in total defense and has not allowed a touchdown in its past two games. Doubters could point to Penn State’s 49-10 early-season loss to Michigan. But Penn State played that game without its two star linebackers, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda. Since Bell and Cabinda have returned to the lineup, the unit has been far more formidable.
Prediction: Penn State 20, Wisconsin 17
The Case for Wisconsin
When I think of Wisconsin Badgers football, I think of a ground-and-pound running game and a rigid defense. The 2016 Badgers have lived up to their billing. The Wisconsin offense has generated over 200 rushing yards in five of the last seven games. Senior running back Corey Clement leads this attack with an average of 103.6 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the season, all 13 of which have come against an eight-man box. The Badgers should be expected to attack on the ground early and often against a Penn State defense surrendering 146.3 rushing yards per game.
On the defensive end, Wisconsin is one of the best units in the nation, residing near the top in several key statistical categories. The Badgers rank 3rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense, allowing only 13.7 points per game. They rank 7th in total defense, surrendering just 292.0 yards per game. The Badgers also defend both the run and pass equally well, ranking 3rd in rush defense, allowing just 100.8 yards per game and 1st in interceptions (21) with 11 coming in the last three games alone. The key for this unit will be stopping one of the most explosive offensive weapons in the nation, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.
Prediction: Wisconsin 23, Penn State 17.