No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin
Saturday at noon, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
Line: Wisconsin by 5 1/2.
TV/Radio: Fox29; WPHT-AM (1210)
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 60-28); Wisconsin, Paul Chryst (seventh season, 56-19).
Series: Penn State leads, 10-9.
After a tale of two seasons in 2020, an 0-5 start and a 4-0 finish, Penn State has fans wondering which version of the Nittany Lions they will see this season.
Will they see a defense that gave up 36 points per game in the first five? Will they see quarterback Sean Clifford catch the turnover bug in the early going again? Or will the Nittany Lions show more of their 2019 form, which ended with an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl championship.
Penn State, ranked 19th, will have to start fast in its opener Saturday against No. 12 Wisconsin. It marks the first stop in a brutal schedule that includes two other games against ranked teams – home vs. Indiana and at Iowa – and its White Out opponent, Auburn, which may be ranked by Sept. 18, in the first six contests.
But as head coach James Franklin likes to chant, “1-0, 1-0, 1-0,” which he typed a few dozen times on Twitter this week. Here’s what to look for:
What to expect
The unexpected: The Nittany Lions will unveil their revamped attack under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. While not much has been seen about the offense in the little time the media get to watch practice, the prevailing thought is that it is a faster tempo than what Nittany Nation has seen in the past, and that an old-time exchange between center and quarterback may happen. Entering his third season as the Lions’ starting quarterback, Sean Clifford appears to like the new offense a lot, telling reporters, “I can really say that I’m the most confident quarterback in the country, because of the guys around me, the way I prepared, the way everybody else is prepared.”
Let’s get physical: This is the fourth season opener Penn State has played against a Big Ten opponent since 1993 and it is certain to be the most physical. Wisconsin annually trots out one of the strongest offensive lines in the conference and won’t lose a step despite the addition of two new starters. It also utilizes 256-pound fullback John Chenal leading the tailbacks into the line, and you know he’ll enjoy the contact. The Nittany Lions will do their share of power running with 225-pound Noah Cain and 239-pound Keyvone Lee behind a line with two new starters. Both sides have linebackers and defensive backs who can hit, and you’ll be able to hear the crash of pads even above the din of the 80,000-plus inside the stadium.
Meet Mr. Mertz: In his collegiate debut last season, Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz completed his first 17 pass attempts and finished 20 of 21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-7 victory over Illinois. He went on to complete 61.1% of his passes for 1,238 yards, nine TDs and five interceptions in seven games. His favorite target is tight end Jake Ferguson, who caught 30 balls for 305 yards and four touchdowns last season and has at least one reception in each of his 33 career games. Wide receiver Kendric Pryor, who took an additional year of eligibility, runs a 4.37-second 40-yard dash.
Sturdy defense: The Badgers are all about forcing turnovers. They ran their streak of takeaways to 13, the longest active run in FBS, in which they have come up with at least one (11 interceptions, eight fumbles). Wisconsin finished fifth in the nation last year in total defense (299.9 yards per game) and ninth in points allowed (17.4 per game). Linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal made All-Big Ten last year. Another all-conference honoree, cornerback Faion Hicks, told reporters at Big Ten Media Day that he wanted to cover Penn State star wideout Jahan Dotson 1-on-1 the entire game.
Keys to the Game
Fewer mistakes: Penn State turned the ball over (17 times – nine interceptions, eight lost fumbles) far too much last year and didn’t take it away (four interceptions, five fumbles recoveries) nearly enough. All eyes will be on Clifford, who committed 12 turnovers last season, but coaches and players have liked the decision-making the fifth-year senior showed in training camp. The Badgers turned the ball over as many times last year (12) as they took it away, and an improved Nittany Lions secondary will be looking for some gifts from Mertz.
Filling the defensive holes: The Nittany Lions have three new starters on the defensive line. Since their head coach won’t release a depth chart, the guesses here are redshirt junior Nick Tarburton (Pennridge) and Temple transfer Arnold Ebikite at end, and Duke transfer Derrick Tangelo at tackle. The Lions lost players who accounted for 13 of their 21 sacks last season and the front four will have to provide some heat against Mertz. Senior Ji’Ayir Brown will make his first start at safety next to his former Lackawanna College teammate, Jaquan Brisker.
Preparing for “Jump Around”: For the first time in 651 days, Penn State will be playing in a hostile environment at a Big Ten stadium but will experience one of the coolest traditions – albeit only 23 years old – in college football. Between the third and fourth quarters, “Jump Around” by House of Pain is played, and students and adults alike do just what the song says. The tremor from all that jumping causes the press box to vibrate but we haven’t lost anyone – yet.