These are two teams headed in very different directions.
The Wisconsin Badgers are winners of six-straight. They will be playing in a significant bowl game on New Year’s Day (or later).
Penn State, however, will be going home and staying there after today’s adventure in Camp Randall Stadium.
And that doesn’t even matter if the Nittany Lions pull one of the biggest upsets of the entire day in college football. When was the last time the Lions were a 24-point underdog?
And yet there always is still the chance for victory.
So here are five keys for Penn State’s season-ender against the Badgers:
1. Reinforce the wall: The final stand for defensive tackles DaQuan Jones and our own Kyle Baublitz, as well as middle linebacker Glenn Carson, must be their best one.
The guys up front can’t be expected to suffocate the best two-headed tailback combination in the nation. But they must control Wisconsin’s James White and Melvin Gordon. Make them grind for every bit of ground gained.
Why are they so good? Look to the massive blockers in front of them but also to how they find space beyond them. They both average more than six yards per carry. That is remarkable.
2. Jump on the ball: The best way to immobilize the overwhelming Wisconsin run game is to take the ball away from it.
The Lions are getting better at forcing turnovers but they must ramp up the effort significantly.
And the best way to do that in Madison is to create fumbles.
But here’s the rub: While the Badgers have put the ball on the ground 17 times this season, they’ve lost only three. Only three fumbles in 11 games. It’s an astounding mark of recovery and truly good fortune.
3. Mix it up, move the sticks: Christian Hackenberg should be a national force at quarterback next fall. But now he’s mostly been up-and-down at finding his receivers and making proper decisions. And so the Penn State offense has moved in jerky starts and stops.
One way to help change that Saturday is through creative and excessive use of his tight ends.
You know about Kyle Carter’s ability from last year. You’ve seen Jesse James with unmatched speed for a 6-foot-7 mountain. And, lately, you’ve witness the rapid growth of Adam Breneman.
There may be no better way to control tempo, eat clock and create scoring opportunities than with a game plan reliant on them.
4. Plug the leaks: Has Penn State ever given up kickoff returns for touchdowns in three-straight games? If we’re even asking, you know there’s a major problem.
It would be bad enough if that one unit was the only real struggle here. But the Lions have dropped punts (How can a safety and two walk-ons be your returners?) and dropped kickoffs and have missed key kicks.
But with only one game left, we’re thinking that a couple of starters could handle the extra work load and pull double-duty and cover those kickoffs, too.
5. Breaking the big ones: The Lions did it once last week with James going down the left sideline. They had another sure long-touchdown but Hackenberg overthrew a streaking Allen Robinson, who had broken away long.
To stay close vs. the Badgers, they must deliver at least two “shock plays,” that preferably produce scores.
And it would be a bonus if the tailbacks got involved in the fun. We still have visions of Zach Zwinak being shot through a cannon last November at Nebraska, ripping through the middle and sprinting past each defensive back.
Of course, that came against the shaky Cornhusker resistance, not the Chris Borland-led Badgers.
But when you’re in a spot like the Lions, you must think big at all costs.