Badgers must contain running back Zach Zwinak to beat Penn State
NOV 27, 2013 2:12p ET
MADISON, Wis. -- If you watch Wisconsin football, you're probably used to seeing one Badgers running back or another (or both) pound the line of scrimmage until the defense, exhausted and sore, fractures apart at the seams late in games. These moments have occurred so often over the years that it has become as much a hallmark as a snow-filled Wisconsin winter.
But what happens when the opponent steals that page and manhandles the Badgers' defense in the same way? It hasn't occurred often. Last year's Wisconsin game against Penn State, however, provided a rare in-game role reversal.
During Penn State's 21-14 overtime victory against Wisconsin in State College, Nittany Lions tailback Zach Zwinak carried the ball 36 times for 179 yards. The total represents the highest ground output by any player in the past five seasons. Not since Iowa's Shonn Greene rushed for 217 yards on Oct. 18, 2008, has any opponent gained more yards.
"Being here, you usually don’t get run on like that too often," Badgers safety Dezmen Southward said. "That’s something that I'll never forget."
Southward and the rest of the Badgers' defense will have an opportunity for retribution when No. 15 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) plays host to Penn State (6-5, 3-4) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium. Zwinak, now a senior, is back and has a 1-2 combination with teammate Bill Belton he didn't have against the Badgers a year ago.
Zwinak ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (79.5), while Belton ranks eighth (79.6). Zwinak's official online bio begins that he is "cut from an old-school cloth and ready to deliver a blow on every play with his downhill, hard-nosed running style."
Badgers linebacker Chris Borland sees much the same thing.
"He's more of a straight-line guy, one cut and go," Borland said. "He's physical, hard-nosed, he's not going to make you miss or really run you over. But he makes great reads and runs hard."
The game will match Penn State's offensive physicality against an equally physical Wisconsin defense. The Badgers rank seventh in the country in rushing defense, allowing 99.1 yards rushing per game.
UW has not allowed a single rusher to gain more than 85 yards (Ohio State's Carlos Hyde) in a game this season. But Wisconsin has only faced three players ranked among the top 10 in rushing yards in the Big Ten. Two are already on the Badgers' team (Melvin Gordon and James White). Wisconsin did not play Nebraska (Ameer Abdullah) and Michigan State (Jeremy Langford), and Indiana's Tevin Coleman was injured for Wisconsin's 51-3 victory against the Hoosiers.
The only players Wisconsin faced that are ranked in the top 10 have been Minnesota running back David Cobb (68 yards rushing), Iowa's Mark Weisman (15 yards) and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (83 yards).
Though Penn State's rushing attack isn't necessarily the most explosive -- the Nittany Lions average 4.1 yards per carry compared to Wisconsin's 6.8 -- it is a team fully committed to the run. Penn State has the sixth-most carries in the conference despite ranking ninth in yards per carry.
"I think they have an intelligent run game more than anything," Borland said. "It's a pro-style offense that always has at least two plays when they come to the line of scrimmage. They were checking to the right looks a lot (last year). … That’s what hurt us. We need to do a better job of adjusting this year."
The game also will provide an intriguing matchup of two of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten. Penn State's Allen Robinson leads the conference in receiving yards per game (119.1), while Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis ranks fourth (83.3). Robinson's mark ranks fifth in the country.
"You have to mix it up," Southward said. "A guy that's that good, you don’t just play him physical the whole game. That’s not going to work. You have to constantly show him different looks. Anyone that good, you show him the same look over and over again, they're going to break one."
The stakes are especially high for Wisconsin, which has an opportunity to keeps its dream of attaining an at-large BCS bowl berth alive with a victory. The Badgers, ranked No. 15 in the latest BCS poll, must ascend into the top 14 and get help with an Ohio State victory against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship on Dec. 7.
But first, Wisconsin must do its part.
"We're playing pretty well right now," Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen said, "and we've just got to be able to finish with Penn State."
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