Penn State will have a chance to win its first conference championship since 2008 when it faces Wisconsin on Saturday in the Big Ten championship game (FOX, 7 p.m. ET).
In addition, there may be a spot in the College Football Playoff at stake in the teams’ first head-to-head matchup since 2013.
In Vegas, bookmakers are giving the No. 6 Badgers a slight edge against the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions, but here are five reasons that Penn State could be primed to pull off the upset:
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They're coming in hot
There are different opinions about the significance (or existence) of momentum, but if you believe in it at all, then you’ve got to figure Penn State has it. The Nittany Lions started out slow, dropping September games to Pitt and Michigan, but they’ve rattled off eight straight wins — by an average of 22.6 points per game — since their humiliating flop at the Big House.
Detractors will be quick to point out that several of those victories came against conference bottom-feeders, but let’s not forget that Penn State also dealt Ohio State its only loss of the year — it’s the whole reason James Franklin’s team is in the Big Ten championship game — and also throttled Iowa, which turned around and beat Michigan seven days later.
Sure, Wisconsin comes in with a six-game win streak of its own, but this Penn State team is confident, and given the tear it has been on of late, you can hardly blame the Nittany Lions.
They’re much healthier on defense than they were in September
Speaking of that blowout loss to Michigan — the one many like to use as a measuring stick when comparing Penn State to the rest of the conference powers — it came with all three of the Nittany Lions’ opening-day starting linebackers on the bench, as Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White all missed the game due to injury. (Penn State also played without Cabinda against Pitt, and Bell was hurt in the loss.)
Fast-forward a couple months and Bell and Cabinda are back, and they’ve been absolutely dominant since they returned to the field. In the team’s win over Ohio State in October, Cabinda made 13 tackles and had a sack, and Bell had a career-high 18 tackles and a sack of his own. Then last week, Bell tied that mark with 18 more tackles in the Nittany Lions’ dismantling of Michigan State.
Overall, Penn State ranks second in the conference in both sacks and tackles for loss, and a complete, healthy, scary front seven is a huge part of the reason why.
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Their passing game is better than you think
Historically speaking, Penn State doesn’t get much recognition for its passing game, but this year’s team can more than hold its own through the air. Make no mistake, these guys aren’t Texas Tech or Washington State, but sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley leads the Big Ten in efficiency and is third in the conference in passing touchdowns and passing yards.
And if you think McSorley is doing it in a dink-and-dunk system, you’re wrong: He leads the nation with 16.2 yards per completion, and he’s ninth nationally and first in the Big Ten in yards per attempt, at 9.1.
As a result, receiver Chris Godwin and tight end Mike Gesicki are among the conference leaders in receiving yards per game, and four Nittany Lions pass-catchers — Godwin (16.21), Gesicki (13.86) DeAndre Thompkins (17.24) and DaeSean Hamilton (14.92) — are in the top 18 in the Big Ten in yards per reception.
That’s not to say they’ll all go wild against Wisconsin, which leads the nation with 21 interceptions and ranks 23rd nationally in pass defense, but McSorley takes care of the ball (he has five interceptions on the year, with just two in the last eight games), and he should provide the Badgers with one of the toughest tests they’ve faced all season.
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So is their running game — if their workhorse is healthy
In addition to its steady stable of receivers, Penn State has a star in the making in sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. On Wednesday, Barkley was named the Big Ten offensive player of the year after finishing the regular season with 1,219 rushing yards, 327 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns (15 on the ground and two through the air). And his 130.3 all-purpose yards per game are tops in the Big Ten.
On the year, Barkley has two 200-yard rushing performances and he’s found the end zone in every game but one, including three multiple-touchdown performances. There’s some mild concern over Barkley’s right foot, which he hurt last week against Michigan State, but Franklin has stated all week that he expects Barkley to play on Saturday.
Assuming Barkley plays, the Nittany Lions will need him at his best against a Wisconsin defensive unit that ranks third nationally with 100.8 rushing yards allowed per game. If Barkley can come close to his usual output against the Badgers, Penn State will be in good shape.
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They're a great second-half team
All season long, Penn State has shown a tendency to start slow and then open things up in the second half. And while a strong first half would be preferred against Wisconsin — or anyone else, for that matter — a lockdown second half could come in handy in a Big Ten championship game that figures to be a back-and-forth battle.
Dating back to the start of the season, Penn State has been outscored 168-159 in first halves, but in the third and fourth quarters, the Nittany Lions are outscoring opponents 280-105. During their eight-game win streak, that number has been better, with Penn State winning the second half by an average of 20 points per game, while gaining nearly double the yards of their opponents (2,090 to 1,099) in those second halves.
So while the ideal scenario would be to dominate out of the gate, there’s some comfort for Nittany Lions fans in knowing their team can both rally out of a hole and hold a lead. Because they may need to do one or both of those things on Saturday.