By Jennifer Palmer
Here are five important ways tonight’s Penn-State-Wisconsin Big 10 title game will
1. Who gets more rushing yards?
With apologies to Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement might be the two best halfbacks in the Big Ten.
Barkley won Offensive Player of the Year honors, leads the Big Ten with 1,563 all-purpose yards and leads all non-kickers with 102 points scored.
Clement enjoyed a resurgence after an injury-plagued season in which he lost his starting job. The Glassboro native finished with six 100-yard rushing performances in the last seven regular-season games, including the final four straight.
Barkley was banged up late in the season, and it’s not promising for Penn State to rely on Andre Robinson, Mark Allen and Miles Sanders.
Clement’s tandem partner Dare Ogunbowale helped Wisconsin become one of four Big Ten teams to average more than 200 yards per game on the ground.
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2. Penn State QB Trace McSorley (above) vs. Wisconsin secondary
McSorley leads the nation with 16.2 yards per completion, using Chris Godwin as his favorite target and Deandre Thompkins as his home run threat. Mike Gesicki, a Manahawkin native, is a difficult matchup as a receiving tight end.
Penn State doesn’t take an over-abundance of downfield shots but first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead seems to always pick the right spots. McSorley won’t wow you with his speed but he is great at buying extra time by scrambling.
Except there are few, if any, right spots against a ball-hawking Wisconsin secondary.
Shutdown cornerback Sojurn Shelton and safeties Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon leave very few holes.
Wisconsin leads the nation with 21 interceptions — while facing one of the most difficult schedules — while opponents completed just 50.7 percent of passes for a Big Ten-low eight aerial touchdowns.
3. Wisconsin pass rush vs. Penn State offensive line
Remember how Penn State’s offensive line used to be the team’s biggest weakness?
It was just last season when the Nittany Lions ranked last in the Big Ten with 39 sacks allowed, including an astonishing 10 in a loss to Temple.
Well, there has been steady improvement as judged by Pro Football Focus, which has honored four different offensive linemen for playing the best in the Big Ten at their spots on a given week. The only problem is mounting injuries.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin pass rush is an exclamation point because of linebackers T.J. Watt — J.J.’s younger brother — Garret Dooley and Vince Biegel, who combine for 16 sacks. The pressure generated by the front seven is a big reason for the interception total and that opponents only convert 26.6 percent of third downs.
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4. Here’s the kicker.
Think about the decisive role that kickers have played in some of the best Big Ten games of the season: The blocked field goal returned for a touchdown by Penn State against Ohio State; the two misses and last-second game-tyer by Ohio State against Michigan; the walk-off winner by Iowa against Michigan.
On one side is Penn State’s Tyler Davis, a former college soccer player who has never missed a kick that wasn’t blocked in his career. He is 29-for-31 on field goals, including a last-second game-tyer against Minnesota, and 61-for-61 on PATs.
On the other side is Wisconsin’s Andrew Endicott, who was only supposed to be a kickoff specialist but was forced into a bigger role by a teammate’s injury.
Endicott is 11-of-16 on field goals and 28-of-30 on PATs and has one of those unfortunate too-common stories of having to make his social media accounts private to avoid hateful fans.
5. Sweet sound of Jazz — especially with Houston
Wisconsin has gotten away with being one-dimensional offensively all season, relying on its defense and rushing attack to make up for a flip-flopping mess at quarterback.
Alex Hornibrook’s status is uncertain due to a head injury. If he can’t go, former starter Bart Houston will get the call.
The truth is it doesn’t matter much because Navy is the only team playing in a conference championship game that averages fewer passing yards than Wisconsin’s 179.6 per game. How can the Badgers generate some big plays?
Jazz Peavy is the kind of versatile weapon not typically season at Wisconsin.The punt returner has a team-high 582 receiving yards and 263 rushing yards with six touchdowns from scrimmage.