STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — At the start of the 2018 season, it was easy to identify the five toughest games on Penn State's schedule and notice that four of them would be played in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium.
However, the home field advantage didn't pan out like it always has. After winning 16 consecutive games in Happy Valley going back to September 2016, the Nittany Lions lost back-to-back home contests to Ohio State and Michigan State, agonizingly close games that could have turned on someone making a play in the fourth quarter when they had the lead.
The Lions defeated Iowa at home and were crushed at Michigan the last two weeks to fall to 1-3 in the difficult games that were circled during the summer. The fifth and final game in that category comes Saturday when Wisconsin pays a visit.
The Badgers (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten), who some had picked in preseason to be in the mix as a College Football Playoff participant, have not met those expectations. They still have a shot at the Big Ten West title, but they need some help.
Meanwhile, for No. 21 Penn State (6-3, 3-3), the task remains the same — eliminating dropped passes, penalties and turnovers — but also includes finding someone who can make a play, regardless of it's on offense, defense or special teams.
Head coach James Franklin said he addressed the team last week and talked about how "everybody else is waiting for someone to make the play, and then we're going to rally behind that person.
"What I talked to them about is: every single one of them was brought into this program to make that play, not to wait for everybody else to do it," he said. "Something that's really, really important is those guys are understanding that they were brought here to make the plays, they are capable of making the plays and they need to do it.
"Where I think our approach needs to be, you're going to make the play and when the opportunity comes, you're going to take advantage of it."
The Nittany Lions need to bounce back with their running game after it was stopped cold last week by Michigan. That should mean more touches for Miles Sanders, who has a team-high 848 rushing yards but managed just eight touches — seven rushes, one reception — last week.
Sanders has had at least 20 touches three times this season but just once, against Indiana, in the last five games.
"I'm willing to get as many touches as I can to help the team win, obviously," Sanders said. "Whatever it takes to help us win, whatever they want me to do, I'm going to do it."
A budding playmaker is freshman wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who has impressed recently with five catches, all good for first downs. Franklin said Dotson came in with a lot of ability but has gotten stronger and has learned the playbook.
"He's a playmaker, and I'm not talking about huge explosive plays, but he just consistently makes play when the ball is thrown to him," he said. "That's why we want to try to find a way to get him on the field."
Wisconsin at Penn State
Saturday, noon at Beaver Stadium, State College
Records: Penn State, 6-3, 3-3 Big Ten, ranked No. 21 by the AP; Wisconsin, 6-4, 4-2.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (fifth season, 42-20); Michigan, Paul Chryst (fourth season, 40-10).
TV/Radio: 6ABC; WNTP-AM (990); WNPV-AM (1440)
History: The series is tied at nine wins apiece. The teams' last meeting was in the 2016 Big Ten championship game where the Nittany Lions rallied from a 21-point deficit and defeated the Badgers, 38-31, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Three things to watch
1. Can Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor be contained? It's the perfect combination: a 5-foot-11, 221-pound blend of power and speed running the football behind an offensive line that has combined for 176 career starts. Taylor, a sophomore from Salem (N.J.) High School, leads the nation in rushing (1,363 yards) and carries (208) and averages 6.6 per carry. The Badgers have run the football 65 percent of the time and rank fourth in the nation with 273 yards per game. The Nittany Lions gave up 259 rush yards last week against Michigan, the most against any opponent this season. They need to tighten up their front seven to at least contain Taylor.
2. Trace McSorley's mobility. McSorley was not made available to reporters this week and Franklin gave no indication that his quarterback would not play Saturday. McSorley was limited somewhat last week by a right knee injury he suffered the week before, going 5 of 13 for 83 yards and being sacked five times. Presumably he is healthier than he was after a week of treatment, and a closer-to-100 percent McSorley is greatly needed to aid the struggling passing game. The Lions will need a balanced offense to keep the ball away from Taylor and the Badgers.
3. Someone wearing blue making a play. Franklin spoke this week about how "everybody else is waiting for someone to make the play" instead of making it himself. Few plays were to be had last week against Michigan but the biggest — Nick Scott's block of a field goal attempt that was returned 65 yards for a touchdown by Garrett Taylor — was called back by a penalty. Plays are needed against Wisconsin — more involvement for Miles Sanders, a big catch or two by any receiver, turnovers (Penn State is now minus-1 in turnover margin) – for the Lions to bounce back from last week.