INDIANAPOLIS - The rush defense of Wisconsin has been one of the best in the nation all season, so good that the Badgers never allowed another opponent to reach the 100-yard mark on the ground after Louisiana State's Leonard Fournette did it in the season's opening game.
Penn State's Saquon Barkley, named this week as the Big Ten offensive player of the year, will be the next challenger to test Wisconsin, and on a larger stage - Saturday night's Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the winner will keep its hopes alive for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Although Barkley has been nicked up the last two games, he still finished second in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,219 yards during the regular season and third in average yards at 101.6. And the good news coming Friday from head coach James Franklin was, he will be good to go on Saturday.
"He's practiced all week long and he looks great," Franklin said at his pregame news conference.
That could be a concern for the Badgers, who finished third in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rush yards allowed, averaging 100.8 yards. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst knows his unit will be tested.
"Saquon Barkley is a heck of a football player, really talented, can make things happen even when [the play] is not necessarily blocked clean or whatever it may be," he said. "He is an extremely talented, good football player. I enjoyed watching him until we started getting ready to play him this week."
Barkley topped the 100-yard mark four times this season, and hit 200 twice – 202 yards in 31 carries on Oct. 8 against Maryland, and 207 yards in just 18 carries on Oct. 29 at Purdue. But he has struggled the last three weeks, including only a 12-carry, 14-yard output a week ago against Michigan State before he left the game late in the third quarter with what was believed to be an ankle injury.
Barkley, who said earlier in the week that he would be ready to play this weekend, said he respects the Wisconsin defense.
"They're a really good defense, and they've got the numbers to show for it," he said. "They've got a bunch of studs over there. So we've got to come really focused. That's an absolutely good group of defensive guys over there. It'll be a really tough game, a physical game, a Big Ten game, so we've got to come out ready for it."
Franklin said he has seen a pattern over the last month where teams try to keep Barkley from beating them by loading up in the box and attempting schemes along the front to confuse the team's young offensive line. He thinks Wisconsin will use the same plan.
"It's going to be a challenge," he said. "Saquon, I think, is going to keep them honest. He's had one of these years around the offensive line where he kind of pounds and struggles and fights and scratches and crawls for any yards he can get. Then usually at some point, usually at a critical time, he breaks a big one for us."
Chryst isn't just concerned about Barkley, but also quarterback Trace McSorley and his ability to hit the deep pass. McSorley leads the nation in passing efficiency, and last week set a program record for total offense in a season, which is currently 3,348 yards.
"I think when you add the fact of what they're doing, McSorley, the receivers, whether it's [Barkley] running the ball, pushing down the field, our defense will be tested in a big way," Chryst said. "We've got to make sure that we play good assignment football."