STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State’s quarterback is beaten up and a chance to finally crack the postseason field has all but evaporated, but there’s plenty still on the line for the Nittany Lions with three games left to play.
Easing the worry and apprehension that has suddenly found a way to swirl around a program that had won 24 of 27 games and averaged 49 points per game in that span until just over a month ago comes first.
No. 20 Penn State (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) has lost three of its last five and now has to contend with one of the country’s best rushing teams against Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2).
“I think it’s a great opportunity to show how resilient we are as a team,” Penn State safety Garrett Taylor said. “I know right now we’re going through what some might call a little bit of adversity, but this team, we have a lot of fight in us and we have a lot of strong-willed guys.”
But Penn State will need more than mental effort to beat a hard-nosed Wisconsin squad still in the hunt for the Big Ten West Division title, and possibly hungry for revenge after Penn State’s head-to-head win in the 2016 Big Ten championship game.
“I think every game is a must win at this point,” Wisconsin linebacker TJ Edwards said. “We’re at the point of the year where it’s November football and you have to play your best at this time to make things happen down the road. Definitely, we have to be at our best and focus on what we have to do.”
The good news for the Badgers? The latest trend points to them being nearly unbeatable this time of year.
Since 2013, Wisconsin is 17-1 in November and hasn’t lost a game in the penultimate month of the year since Nov. 21, 2015.
Penn State, meanwhile, hasn’t experienced a loss like the 42-7 shellacking it took at Michigan last week in nearly as long.
“Saturday was a tough one for all of us to swallow,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We’ve had some tough losses in tight games, but we had been one of the more competitive programs over that stretch in the country.”
To stay competitive on Saturday, both defenses will likely have to match stops as both teams are facing dilemas on offense with their quarterbacks.
Penn State’s Trace McSorley suffered an unspecified knee injury two weeks ago and struggled to play through it in Ann Arbor. The program’s career leader in total yardage managed just 77 yards of offense before he was pulled for backup Tommy Stevens.
McSorley is expected to start Saturday, but with his mobility being a concern, may yield more snaps to the equally shifty Stevens.
“You certainly prepare for McSorley,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “You’re talking about a heck of a quarterback. I love the way he plays. He plays the game and competes. You’re going to plan for their offense.”
But that unit is a far cry right now from the comeback-capable, big-play threat offense that vanquished Chryst’s Badgers in the Big Ten title game two years ago.
This season, the Nittany Lions have suffered from week to week with lackluster receiver play and questionable calls on third down, where Penn State has converted just 41 of 120 attempts. Meanwhile, talented tailback Miles Sanders has touched the ball less and less during the last three weeks.
“We’ve got to be more consistent in the throws we make,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to be more consistent in catching the ball; when we have an opportunity to make a play, we’ve got to make a play, and we’ve got to be able to give our quarterback as much time as he needs to go through his progression and his reads.
“I don’t expect us to just get dramatically better in one area. We’ve just got to get a little bit better in each area and do that weekly.”
The Badgers could rely on their NCAA-leading rushing attack more so than usual.
Jonathan Taylor, who leads all backs with 151 rushing yards per game, will continue to take center stage in the Badgers’ attack even with starter Alex Hornibrook at the helm.
But Hornibrook found himself in concussion protocol for the second time in three weeks after hitting his head on the ground in the first half of Wisconsin’s win over Rutgers last week. Sophomore Jack Coan would start if Hornibrook is not cleared to play.
“Probably the best thing for him was probably playing on the road at Northwestern,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “Know it’s going to be different, it’s going to be some uncomfortable situations, there’s going to be some things where your nerves are high.”