Five things: Penn State-Wisconsin

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
7:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Badgers are still trying to keep their hopes for a BCS bowl alive, while the Nittany Lions are trying to finish with a winning season.

Penn State is about a three-touchdown underdog, and it would be a small victory just to keep this game close. Here are five things to watch in PSU's season finale:

1. Two of the best true freshmen in the Big Ten. OK, Penn State fans, the first one's a pretty easy guess -- quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He seems to be the favorite for the Big Ten freshman of the year award, and he's played pretty well considering he only enrolled over the summer. But Wisconsin also boasts one of the best true freshmen in the conference, and it's someone whom Hackenberg's going to have to deal with -- 5-foot-9 cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who leads his team with four interceptions. Shelton will be lined up against Allen Robinson at times, and he's looking forward to the matchup. Here's what he told ESPN.com earlier this week: "It's marked on my calendar; it's a very serious situation. I played pretty good receivers all this season, but this is that one where this is your chance to blow up as a guy. I want to be talked about like Darqueze Dennard and Bradley Roby -- and this is my shot. You can either seize the moment or you can fold." Think he's not fired up? Should be interesting to see a glimpse of the future with these two.

2. Wisconsin running game vs. PSU run defense. The average Badgers' offensive lineman is a little more than eight pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' OL, and Wisconsin's two tailbacks -- James White and Melvin Gordon -- have had no trouble running this season. Wisconsin leads the nation in rushes of 30 yards or longer (21) and 50 yards or longer (9). And it's averaged a BCS-high 9.1 yards per carry on designed runs outside the tackles -- and it just so happens that's a weakness of the Penn State defense. DEs Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan will have to contain and be on top of their games -- or this could get ugly. Fast.

3. One-dimensional pass offenses. Robinson and Jared Abbrederis are basically their teams' only receiving threats. Abbrederis (61 catches, 916 yards) has accounted for more than one in every three Wisconsin completions, and he's accounted for 43 percent of the passing offense. It's even starker for Penn State. Robinson (89 catches, 1,310 yards) has accounted for 40 percent of the offense's completions and 47 percent of the passing offense. When Hackenberg targets Robinson, he's completing 63.6 percent of his passes and has thrown five TDs to one pick. When he targets any receiver not named Robinson? His completion rate drops to 50.4 percent, and he's passed for four TDs and four picks. Basically, if neither wideout can get going, it means neither can the passing games.

4. Repeat performance for Zach Zwinak? The 240-pound back is playing his best football right now, as his last three games have been his three biggest rushing performances of the season (150 yards, 149 yards, 149 yards). And he had quite the game last year against Wisconsin, when he carried the ball 36 times for 179 yards. Don't think Wisconsin forgot. "That is something that stuck with me," senior safety Dezmen Southward told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Badgers are out for revenge, and Penn State's offense needs the running game to remain strong for it to have any shot at keeping the game close.

5. Wisconsin on play-action passes. Yes, just the threat of Wisconsin running the ball helps out the offense. It's night and day when Joel Stave attempts a pass off a play-action pass compared to without. Without, he has eight TDs to seven interceptions, averages 6.5 yards through the air and has a dozen completions that have gone for longer than 20 yards. With the play-action, he's almost been a different quarterback. He's passed for nine TDs to two picks, averages 12.1 yards through the air and has 18 completions that have gone for at least 20 yards. So, really, whenever Wisconsin turns toward its tailbacks for a handoff -- even if it's a fake -- that could spell trouble for the Penn State's defense.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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