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November 29, 2013

All-Out Blitz: Penn State





Welcome to BadgerBlitz.com's "All-Out Blitz,", where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. The Badgers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) have one game left in their regular season, and need to wait on the result of the Big Ten Championship Game before they make any plans for a BCS Bowl Game.

But before that they'll need to care of business on senior day against Penn State, who are hurting a little bit now that the NCAA's sanctions are starting to take effect. The game is set for a 2:30 kick off, and will be broadcast on ESPN.

In the meantime, here's what you need to know about the Nittany Lions:

Head coach: Bill O'Brien (2nd season @ Penn State), 14-9 (9-6 Big Ten)
Penn State All-Time Record: 726-366-43 (.659)
2013 Record: 6-5 (3-4 Big Ten)
Ranking: NR (BCS), NR (AP), NR (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 7-9-0

Season outlook

Penn State had a pretty good run in O'Brien's first season in State College, winning eight total games and six Big Ten games just after the NCAA lowered the boom and hit the program hard with scholarship reductions, and gave players a free chance to transfer to another program. Instead most players stayed around, but several of the players who kept the Lions afloat last year have moved on and exhausted their eligibility, especially on the defensive side of the ball. This is the first season where depth was really going to be an issue for Penn State.

This year

The Nittany Lions decided to roll with a true freshman at quarterback after Matt McGloin graduated and moved on to the NFL. Now it's Christian Hackenberg under center for Penn State, and he's played pretty well for someone who was in high school just one year ago. So far the freshman is completing 58 percent of his passes and has thrown for 2,616 yards to go with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

His numbers dip a bit on the road, and he's struggled under heavy pressure and if the opposing defense can get some hits on him. The Badgers will have to find ways to get to Hackenberg without making their intentions too obvious though- defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said the Lions do a good job of switching to max-protect if they think a blitz is coming to try and keep their quarterback upright.

Penn State's rushing attempts have gone up over the last few games: they're averaging 45 rushes per game over their last six games compared to 40 per game in their first five. Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have split the carries for the most part: Zwinak averages about 17 carries per game and Belton have been good for about 15 touches.

So far Belton has done more with less (he's averaging 5.17 yards per carry), but Zwinak has seen his workload skyrocket over the last few weeks. Zwinak has rushed 26, 26 and 35 times over Penn State's last three games, so the Badgers should expect to see a heavy dose of him this weekend.

Penn State's passing game is Allen Robinson and then everyone else. The 6-foot-3 junior has 89 catches for 1,310 yards so far this season, to go with six total touchdowns. The Nittany Lions have two other receivers with 20 catches or more, but stopping Robinson has to be Wisconsin's top priority. Cornerback Darius Hillary is probably going to be matched up with Robinson the most, so we'll see if he can keep another top wide receiver in check.

But for all of Robinson's talent the Lions have actually spread the scoring around a bit: six other pass-catchers have scored touchdowns this season, including two for Belton, who has 14 catches this season as well. Zwinak isn't as much of a pass-catching threat. He only has three catches so far this season, whereas Belton averages at least one catch per game.

Penn State's defense has regressed a bit so far this season, but as a whole it's a unit that's kept them in games at the very least. They allow an average of 26.4 points per game, but that does jump to 37 points per game on the road. The Nittany Lions allow 3.91 yards per carry, but it's been closer to 4.34 yards per carry in Big Ten play, and the Lions have actually allowed 5.14 yards per carry against four of the Big Ten's top five rushing offenses.

The home to road splits aren't very favorable for Penn State's defense against the pass, either. They allow just 6.3 yards per passing attempt at home, compared to 7.8 yards per attempt on the road. The Nittany Lions have allowed touchdowns on 55.5 percent of their opponent's redzone trips, with is tied for fifth in the Big Ten with Michigan. As a whole Penn State's conference opponents have converted 38.6 percent of their third down attempts into first downs, as well. As a whole it's a defense that's in the top half of the conference in most stats, but their road performance hasn't always been quite as strong.

Matchup to watch: Wisconsin's pass rush vs. Penn State's offensive line

The Badgers need to get after Hackenberg if they want to keep Penn State's offense in check. Recently the Lions have started switching their tight end into max-protect when they think a blitz is coming, so defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will look for ways to try and exploit that. They could feint a big blitz and then drop into coverage, or try and bring pressure from unexpected spots so that Hackenberg will let his tight end out into the field to run a route. Either way this is one of the chess matches that will determine just how successful each team can be.

The pick: Wisconsin 35 Penn State 14

If this game were in State College I think this game could be a lot closer, but at home I don't see the Nittany Lions hanging with the Badgers for very long. Wisconsin's defense has been stifling recently, and Penn State's offense hasn't been very efficient on the whole of the season. Penn State might actually have some success stopping Wisconsin's run game, but in the end I think the combination of White and Gordon and some play-action passes to Abbrederis and Pedersen will be enough to keep the Badgers moving the ball at home.

The point after:

The visitor in this series is 1-6 since Penn State started playing a Big Ten schedule in 1993.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.



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