STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — When Sean Spencer became Penn State's defensive line coach in 2014, he nicknamed his group of tackles and ends the “Wild Dogs” and upped the ante last year by using a 3-foot rawhide bone as their encouragement.
The “Wild Dogs” responded with the third most sacks in the nation before three left for the NFL, leaving a big void up front. It's been filled by players who are living up to the moniker perhaps more than any group Spencer's coached. They're playing with a pack mentality.
“They've been playing crazy,” cornerback John Reid said. “A lot of people had their doubts about the D-line coming into this year. They fed off that. They worked each and every day. A lot of guys got stronger, bigger and faster and they've been playing great.”
No. 8 Penn State (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten, No. 7 CFP) enters the Big Ten championship against No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2, No. 6 CFP) with 37 sacks, nine away from last season's total, and is getting contributions from nearly a dozen players Spencer's comfortable rotating in and out. Ten different linemen have sacks with defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan leading the way with six apiece for a speedy unit that's been mostly unheralded all season.
Not from Reid's point of view, however.
The sophomore cornerback has played more snaps than any Penn State player by far. He's done so with magnified confidence as players up front have limited coverage time with straight rushes and twists and stunts that showcase their speed.
“The D-line definitely makes it easier for the guys on the backend,” Reid said. “We substitute in a whole other D-line and they'll come in just as fast as the starters.”
The constant rotation has helped keep Penn State's defensive linemen fresh all season. It's the one position group that's avoided serious injury.
“It's definitely a good thing that we're able to play so many guys,” tackle Curtis Cothran said. “We're ready to go in the fourth quarter.”
That's evident as the Nittany Lions have generated pressure out of their base defense late in games. They've got 17 fourth-quarter sacks and opposing quarterbacks are completing 53 percent of their throws in the final quarter.
Meanwhile, the Badgers' stout offensive line has usually worn opposing defensive lines down by then.
Wisconsin has allowed 20 sacks this season and four over the past three games, but has mostly neutralized opposing pass-rushers by committing to the run. On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin's defensive front might be more underrated than Penn State's.
Utilizing a 3-4 alignment, Wisconsin primarily generates its pass rush with outside linebackers. They blend size and speed and key off a 3-man front led by 340-pound nose tackle Olive Sagapolu and ends Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih. The Badgers have 31 sacks and outside linebacker T.J. Watt has 9 1/2.
“They're creating mayhem out there,” linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “A lot of what they're asked to do is to take on doubles and to occupy guards or tackles, and to occupy those guys up front to free us up. So if we're running untouched making plays, that means they're doing a good job with what they're doing.”
The fact Wisconsin leads the country with 21 interceptions isn't lost on Penn State coach James Franklin, either.
“I think they play complementary defense,” Franklin said. “They get interceptions because they have talent but they also get interceptions because they're able to get pressure on the quarterback. The best friend of a defensive back is a defensive lineman that can rush the quarterback.”