October 10, 2008

Penn State-Wisconsin breakdown

MADISON, Wis. - There will be one highly ranked and undefeated team playing under the lights of Camp Randall Saturday night. The problem for the home fans is that team will be No. 6 Penn State.

The Nittany Lions head into Madison with a perfect 6-0 record while UW has suffered back-to-back losses by a combined five points. With a win, the Badgers could start their march toward a potential New Years Day bowl. However, beating PSU's high octane, multi-faceted spread offense will be extremely difficult.

The following is a breakdown of this weekend's match up:

When Wisconsin has the ball:

The common theme when looking back at UW's two touchdown drives against Ohio State was John Clay playing a major role. In the second quarter, Clay had five carries for 31 yards on a 91-yard touchdown drive to tie the score.

Then, in the fourth quarter, it was Clay's four carries for 36 yards that set up the Badgers go ahead touchdown with just over six minutes to play. Needless to say, Clay is a playmaker and deserves more carries. It will be interesting to see how the UW coaching staff tries to incorporate the talented running back against Penn State.

After an interesting week, Allan Evridge will be the starting quarterback on Saturday. However, after two somewhat disappointing performances over the past two weeks, Evridge will have plenty to prove. However, going against the Nittany Lions defense that allows less that 12 points per game will be difficult.

In order for the Badgers to move the ball on one of the conferences premier defenses it starts up front with the offensive line. Last week, the big men in the trenches did a good job opening running lanes and providing time for Evridge against an Ohio State defense that returned many great players. This week, much of the same will need to happen.

Establishing a running game early to get the PSU defense off kilter, especially their relatively young and developing linebacking core will only benefit the Badgers. Having both Travis Beckum and Garrett Graham will be very instrumental to the Badger offense. Saturday will mark the first time both players will see the field during the same game.

Before his foot injury, Graham was clearly Evridge's go to target. It will be interesting to see how much he is thrown to on Saturday assuming he is at full strength. But again, the offense only goes as far as the quarterback allows it to. If Evridge shows improvement over the past two weeks, the Badger offense could be formidable for the PSU defense.

Advantage: UW. Having all the skill players back gives the Badgers a slight advantage. The Penn State defense has yet to play an offense anything like that of Wisconsin.

When Penn State has the ball:

So far on the season, the young Badger cornerback duo of Niles Brinkley and Mario Goins have been pleasant surprises. This week, they will get their ultimate test.

Penn State has the best group of wide receivers in the entire conference. Jordan Norwood, Deon Butler and Derrick Williams all have electric speed and are well above average pass catching threats. Just like Penn State has yet to go against running backs like UW features, the Badgers have yet to face such excellent receivers.

The Badger cornerbacks and safeties are going to have to play one of the best games of the season if UW hopes to contain and slow the Penn State offense.

In the backfield, the Nittany Lions have one of the more underrated running backs in the Big Ten. So far, Evan Royster averages 7.8 yards per carry and has found the end zone eight times. Slowing him, especially early, will be essential, otherwise the spread offense PSU runs will get rolling in full stride.

While Daryll Clark is off to a great early season start, he has yet to play in an environment as hostile as Camp Randall. By forcing him to pass, the Badgers may lure him into making mistakes.

Forcing him into bad decision will only happen if UW is consistently able to get into the backfield and fluster him. So far, the Badger defensive line and linebackers have played exceptionally well…until the fourth quarter. If the cardinal and white hope to upset Penn State, the defense will have to play a complete game.

Advantage: Penn State. Their wide receivers and underrated running back will wear down the Badger defense in the second half.

Special teams:

So far, UW's freshman kicking specialists have performed very well. Brad Nortman has shown his powerful leg in the punting game and Philip Welch has been consistent in the field goal opportunities he has had.

Penn State place-kicker Kevin Kelly has hit seven of eight field goal tries, including a long of 52. Meanwhile, punter Jeremy Boone has recorded an average of 40.5 yards per punt in the Nittany Lions first six games.

Returning-wise, the Badgers David Gilreath is always a dynamic threat. The PSU kickers need to get solid hang time on their kicks to limit his capabilities. On the other side, Penn State's Williams is just as much of a special teams playmaker, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns already. Special teams may wind up deciding this game.

Advantage: PUSH

Prediction: After losing at home for the first time in 16 games, the Badgers will come out fired up Saturday night trying to get back into the winning column. UW knows they cannot dwell on the past and only have the future to look forward to. I expect this game to be close, much like last week's game against Ohio State.

For UW, getting both Graham and Beckum back will make their offense more fluid. However, the Penn State receivers will prove to be too much for the Badger secondary and make key plays late in the game to keep their undefeated record in tact.

Penn State wins 27-20.

Lea's record: 3-2

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