Big Ten Championship 2016: Penn State vs. Wisconsin Breakdown, Predictions

Big Ten Championship 2016: Penn State vs. Wisconsin Breakdown, Predictions

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The 2016 Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff implications will be on the line Saturday when Penn State and Wisconsin meet in Indianapolis.

After Ohio State took down Michigan, the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten East thanks to a tiebreaker over the Buckeyes. Meanwhile, Wisconsin was able to overcome two conference losses to win its division over Nebraska. With Penn State and Wisconsin both among the two-loss teams vying for a playoff spot, this game will also be an elimination bout for the national title.

Here is the Big Ten championship schedule, as well as a breakdown of each team and a prediction for who will win the conference.

2016 Big Ten Championship Schedule
Date Matchup Time (ET) Network
Saturday, Dec. 3 Penn State vs. Wisconsin 8 p.m. Fox

Game Preview

Even with Michigan State’s epic collapse this season, there was still no bigger surprise in the conference than Penn State emerging as the Big Ten East champion.

Sitting at 2-2 after a 49-10 drubbing from Michigan on Sept. 24, it appeared the Nittany Lions may have had to fight to earn a bowl berth. Over two months later, Penn State has won eight consecutive games, including a home triumph over Ohio State.

Head coach James Franklin has seemingly turned this program around after some bumpy prior campaigns, and Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman notes that his work this season has not been appreciated enough:

Saquon Barkley leads the Penn State offense with 1,219 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns this season, but he could be severely limited on Saturday against an outstanding Wisconsin defense.

The Badgers are third in the nation with 13.7 points allowed per game, seventh in total defense with 292 yards allowed a contest and third in rush defense with 100.8 yards yielded per outing.

Wisconsin scored 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points to down Minnesota 31-17 last week, but the team could be banged up after quarterback Alex Hornibrook left with a concussion. Head coach Paul Chryst called him “day-to-day,” per’s Greg Pickel.

Hornibrook will be needed, as Penn State is playing well defensively. The Nittany Lions rank 20th nationally with 346.8 yards allowed per game to go with 22.8 points given up an outing, which is good for 30th in the country.

Two major factors in this game will be the play of Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and the battle between the teams on third down.

McSorley is completing 56.3 percent of his throws for 2,976 yards, 21 touchdowns and five picks to go with 372 yards and six scores on the ground. He’s played well throughout the season, but his performance has been a bit inconsistent against Penn State’s three toughest opponents:

McSorely 2016 Numbers Against Penn State’s Top Opponents
Team Completion Percentage Passing Yards Passing Touchdowns Interceptions Rushing Yards Rushing Touchdowns
Michigan 59.3 121 1 1 -6 0
Ohio State 34.8 154 1 0 63 1
Iowa 61.1 240 2 0 40 1

The offense has adjusted well after halftime though, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Jeff Potrykus notes:

With Barkley likely to be neutralized a bit, McSorley will need to be a difference-maker against Wisconsin. This is especially true on third down because Penn State cannot afford to allow Wisconsin’s offense to stay on the field and wear down the Nittany Lions defense.

Wisconsin ranks third in the country in third-down defense, stopping opponents 73.6 percent of the time. This is not good news for Penn State because it struggles in this situation with a 32.3 success rate offensively, which is good for a putrid 121st nationally. 

Defensively, Penn State stops opponents 63 percent of the time, while Wisconsin converts at a 43.1 percent rate. 

The numbers suggest this will be a low-scoring slugfest, which greatly favors Wisconsin. Corey Clement, who is among the Big Ten’s best running backs with 1,140 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year, should have some space to run. Penn State boasts a good, but not great, run defense that surrenders 146.3 yards per game.

The health of Hornibrook will be critical, but it appears Wisconsin could be able to create short-yardage situations on third down to maintain possession while its defense continues to ball out. Look for the Badgers to pull out a victory, which could possibly land them in the playoff.

Prediction: Wisconsin 16, Penn State 10

Statistics are courtesy of unless otherwise.