Wisconsin backs could be a handful for the Nittany Lions

Posted: November 29, 2013

STATE COLLEGE - It's cold, it's the Big Ten, it's November. And behind its usual, bulky offensive line, Wisconsin has run its way to the BCS doorstep.

The 15th-ranked Badgers are eighth in the nation, with 297.8 rushing yards per game, and have two running backs averaging better than 100 yards per contest in Melvin Gordon and James White. And at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow at Camp Randall Stadium - in Penn State's final contest of the 2013 season - Bill O'Brien's team is tasked with slowing them down.

"They're very well-coached," O'Brien said of Wisconsin's tailbacks. "They're physical, they're big. Gary Anderson has done a good job coming in there and putting his style of play and putting his mark on that program right away."

Both Gordon and White rank in the top 14 in the country in yards per game and have combined to find the end zone 25 times in 11 games. Gordon (6-1, 207 pounds) is the Big Ten's second-leading rusher, with 125 yards per game, and averages 8.2 yards per carry. Meanwhile, White is the conference's third-most-productive runner, with 116.5 yards per contest.

Running the ball successfully is nothing new for Wisconsin, which is in its first year under Anderson's direction. The Badgers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) ran for 236.4 yards per game last season, and had an 1,800-yard rusher in Montee Ball. But the twin threat of Gordon and White poses a different problem to opposing defenses.

"Gordon and also White are really good running backs," Penn State linebacker Mike Hull said. "We've watched a lot of film on them [this week] since we don't have class. They're shifty, but they can also run you over if they have to, especially Gordon, he's a bigger guy. It's going to be a challenge this week. We're going to have to play responsible defense and shut down the run game."

The Nittany Lions (6-5, 3-4) have a two-headed rushing attack of their own with Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. Zwinak piled up 149 yards last week in an overtime loss to Nebraska and has averaged 79.5 yards per game this season. Belton gained 796 yards in 10 games, but was held out of last week's game with strep throat and a banged-up shoulder. However, O'Brien said he said the Sicklerville, N.J., native "looks like he's going to be good to go" earlier in the week.

This whole week was one of a bit more relaxation for Penn State, as there were no classes, because of Thanksgiving break. O'Brien noted the team did not hit at practice Monday and hoped it would aid in healing his players.

"Being able to sleep in a little bit, come over, get some treatments in the training room and then come back after practice and get another treatment, I think that will help," the second-year coach said. "And there's only one game left, so our guys will be ready to go out there and lay it on the line, I know that."

O'Brien talked about the first 11 games of the season taking a toll on his team physically, and that won't change Saturday, as his team goes up against one of the conference's stingiest defenses. Behind senior linebacker Chris Borland - who is third in the Big Ten with 92 tackles - the Badgers surrender only 13.4 points per game.

Wisconsin also has given up only 10 points total in its last two games, and has held opponents to 10 points or fewer seven times this season. It will be a guaranteed test for quarterback Christian Hackenberg in his final start of his true freshman campaign.

"They're athletic, I would think they make many mistakes," Hackenberg said of the Badgers."They play really well together. So we have to focus offensively on not making mistakes and just keeping and stringing drives together one play at a time."

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WNTP (990-AM), WNPV (1440-AM)

3 THINGS TO WATCH:

1. A frustrated Bill O’Brien.

Wisconsin’s defense is arguably the best Penn State will have seen all season, and with a freshman quarterback on the road, it could be a long afternoon for the head coach/offensive coordinator. The Lions have struggled on the road this season as a team, and the offense has scored 48 points in three true road games. In a chilly Camp Randall setting, that trend will continue.

2. Lots of Wisconsin running.

Melvin Gordon and James White average a combined 241.5 yards per game on the ground, and the Badgers are just short of averaging 300 as a team. It’s no secret the team will run. It’s just a matter of how much the Lions can contain it. Penn State gave up 147 yards to Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah — the Big Ten’s leading rusher — last week, but limited his big gains. Penn State ranks sixth in the conference in rush defense, as the unit gives up 146.2 yards per contest.

3. Fresh Penn State seniors.

Tomorrow is the final collegiate contest for 17 Penn State seniors. And as much as the team wants to send them out as winners, if the game gets out of hand, expect O’Brien to use some younger players to see how they react in a game setting. Penn State is also without bowl practices because of its postseason ban, so this is the final time the coaching staff can evaluate a few players who could be a large part of the program next season.

Prediction: Wisconsin 37, Penn State 10

Penn State got its doors blown off by Ohio State when it traveled to the Horseshoe last month, and while tomorrow won’t be quite the shellacking, expect Wisconsin to be in control for 60 minutes. Lions QB Christian Hackenberg will have his fair share of struggles, as will the defense, with Wisconsin sprinkling in some well-timed pass plays. The Badgers are more talented, have more depth and will outplay Penn State on their Senior Day.

On  Twitter: @SPianovich

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