If you're headed to State College for the game Saturday, I'd suggest you take Bill O'Brien up on his request to get to your seats by 3 p.m. The team has a few small surprises in store for everyone beyond announcing all of the seniors. Even the usual senior day announcements will feature each player becing accompanied onto the field by family members.
Several Penn State seniors have already predicted that they'll be fighting tears before kickoff.
I bawled after the state championship game my senior year, Jordan Hill said this week, talking about his final game at Steel-High. Not because we won. Because it was over.
Yeah, it's going to be a unique scene. Before the game and after.
For now, let's focus on everything that will occur in between. Wisconsin isn't nearly as well-rounded as the past two seasons that saw the Badgers land in the Rose Bowl. But the Badgers still have a history-making running back and one of the nation's highest-rated defenses.
Getting that eighth and final win won't be easy.
And to think, the biggest storyline for this week was supposed to be Danny O'Brien. That was back in the spring, after the refugee picked Wisconsin over Penn State as his transfer destination. He looked like a cinch to follow Russell Wilson's path and keep the Badgers' offense humming. Now he won't even leave the sideline unless something goes very wrong for Wisconsin. O'Brien essentially plunged to third on the depth chart after early season ineffectiveness, losing his starting job to Joel Stave. When Stave was knocked out with an injury, the Badgers elected to go with little-used veteran Curt Phillips instead, and it will be Phillips under center against Penn State. Phillips has not thrown much while starting the last two games, but he did throw a clutch TD with just seconds left to force overtime against Ohio State. As for Matt McGloin, it's unfortunate that his historic day last week was overshadowed, but that doesn't change the fact that his is a story like none other at Penn State. And after two years as one of the most polarizing players for Penn State fans, he'll be greeted by them with one of the loudest cheers before Saturday's kickoff. EDGE: PSU
As he usually does, Stephon Morris put it best this week. When asked about record-setting Badgers tailback Montee Ball, the Lions corner replied, I hear he’s having a down year. I looked at his stats and was like, ‘He’s having a down year?’ He has 17 touchdowns, (1,400) yards. I think he just broke the record for touchdowns. You can’t take anything away from that. He might make some big plays on Saturday. We're gonna have our plays, too. Indeed, Montee Ball's 78 career total touchdowns are tied for the most in NCAA history. His 72 rushing scores rank second all-time. Slowing down Ball is the single biggest obstacle to a victory for the Lions. Penn State's Zach Zwinak has three straight games over 130 yards rushing, though the team is just as focused on his alarming four lost fumbles in the last five weeks. Former starter Bill Belton has touched the ball just once in the month of November. Bill O'Brien said this week that the main reason for the lack of playing time at this point is that Zwinak has been too productive. But when it's time to spell Zwinak, it's Mike Zordich who shifts back to tailback. EDGE: UW
Only one player in Penn State history has ever topped 1,000 yards receiving in a season. That would be Bobby Engram, who did it twice (1994, 1995) before heading to the NFL. A similar future could be in line for Allen Robinson, who has already blown away the single-season receptions record at the school. He needs just 22 yards against the Badgers to hit 1,000 on the year and 107 to break Engram's record. He's also two scores from matching Engram's single-season touchdown catch mark of 13. Both of those records seemed well enough out of reach... and then the sophomore went for 197 yards and two TDs against Indiana. Obviously the numbers are due in part to a radically different philosophy on offense under Bill O'Brien. But the Lions haven't often had this kind of production from a guy with a 6-3 frame like Robinson. Keeping him in the fold for 2013 is critical to help out whoever will start under center. Wisconsin has perhaps the Big Ten's second best receiver in Jared Abbrederis, who, like McGloin, is a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy for the country's top player who began his career as a walk-on. As usual, the Badgers are deadly on play-action, and the Lions safeties can't get caught up looking at Ball in the backfield. EDGE: PSU
At four losses before Thanksgiving, this has actually been one of Bret Bielema's least successful seasons in his seven years since taking over for Barry Alvarez. With the success of back-to-back trips to Pasadena comes a cost, however, as his coaching staff got better opportunities. After an excellent 2011 campaign, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst took the Pitt head coaching job and took a handful of Badgers assistants with him. So that sort of turnover is tough to deal with. One of the replacements, line coach Mike Markuson, became the fall guy after two uninspiring games to open the season, including a 10-7 loss to Oregon State. He was fired and replaced by Bart Miller, and the production (eventually) picked back up. Wisconsin may not have a Joe Thomas-caliber guy in the group, but it's still one of the better units the Lions have seen, even if right tackle Rob Havenstein isn't able to play because of an injury. Penn State will say goodbye to very good center in Matt Stankiewitch on Saturday, as well as a resilient tackle in Mike Farrell, who improved as much as anyone on the team between the spring and summer. Both are valuable locker room guys and will be missed by the team. EDGE: UW
It looked like Jordan Hill's college career might have ended prematurely three weeks ago out at Purdue, but the big senior has hung in there and did a fine job stepping out of the very large shadow of his former teammates, Devon Still and Jared Odrick. Hill and Sean Stanley have given four years to the Lions under Larry Johnson while fellow senior Pete Massaro has given five, though two ACL injuries have limited his time on the field. Hill has been excellent, even while banged up and Stanley has quietly chipped in three sacks and eight tackles for loss. They'll be handing the reins over to underclassmen like Deion Barnes (already showing star potential) and Anthony Zettel. Wisconsin's defensive front is as massive as the guys on offense, with a pair of mammoth tackles in Beau Allen (6-3, 335) and Ethan Hemer (6-6, 319) gumming up the middle. Wisconsin has a top-10 run defense for a reason, allowing barely over 100 yards on the ground per game. If Zach Zwinak even approaches the 130-yard total he's hit every game this month, it will be a very impressive accomplishment. EDGE: PSU
Said it all about Mike Mauti at the bottom of yesterday's post. You can bet that part of Saturday's celebration will be focused on Mauti. It's not something he asked for, to be sure, but his teammates and coaches all feel it's appropriate. What can't be overlooked in the praise of Mauti is the work done these past two years by Gerald Hodges. The fellow senior was still raw last season when he was forced to take a bigger role when Mauti went down at the end of last September. Heading into November, he was one of the most dynamic linebackers out there. It's easy to forget that he spent his first year on campus playing safety. He's far from perfect, but that leaping interception he made against Indiana last week is a great example of what he's capable of. Hodges is a Jersey kid who initially was headed to Rutgers before reversing field, and he's never looked back, choosing to stay at PSU despite the scandal in November and despite the sanctions in January. He'll get his recognition along with Mauti. Wisconsin could again be without its top all-around player on defense, as linebacker Chris Borland missed last week's showdown with Ohio State and hasn't been able to practice this week because of a hamstring issue. Considering this game means next to nothing for the Badgers, who have a Big Ten title game to worry about next week, it would be very surprising to see Wisconsin rush Borland back. EDGE: PSU
Yes, the Lions surrendered a hideous 454 yards through the air last week. That was to be expected against the pass-happy Hoosiers, who faced a huge deficit throughout the second half. It wasn't a good showing by any means, but if that ends up being the worst day for the secondary this season, considering the scrutiny it faced coming into the year, well, the Lions will take it. It's a huge difference going from Indiana to a Wisconsin team on its third different starting quarterback, but the defensive backs can't relax. Malcolm Willis was not close to playing last week, so odds are against him returning for this one. He, like Stephen-Obeng Agyapong and Adrian Amos, still have eligibility left, but it will be the last game for Stephon Morris, who poured his heart out in the Beaver Stadium media room on Tuesday, talking about his close relationship with his father, who has raised him since his birth mother essentially abandoned him as an infant. Really powerful stuff. It's easy to see why young DBs like Amos and Da'Quan Davis have already pledged to return next season, citing Morris' strong influence on them. He will be missed by players (and reporters) alike. The Badgers have a steady and sure-tackling group in the backfield with guys like Devin Smith, Marcus Cromartie and Ethan Armstrong. EDGE: UW
Unable to find a return man for much of the season, the Lions may have something in true freshman Trevor Williams. The rookie has just been back on kick returns, and while his yardage hasn't been anything special, he gave some life last week to a unit that has done next to nothing this season, shaking a few tackles and getting the crowd buzzing. So that's something. The Lions will still finish the year among the 10 or 15 worst kick return teams in the country. Jared Abbrederis has returned some punts in the past, but Kenzel Doe is the guy who has a touchdown to his name this year, so that's something to watch out for. As it stands, Sam Ficken could head into the offseason with a nice little streak of successful field goals. But even if he misses one, Ficken has still managed to get back his own confidence, as well as that of his coaches. If it seems like the Lions have cut back a bit on the fourth-down tries, it's because Ficken has given them a reason to trust him from inside of 40 yards. EDGE: UW
Win or lose, it's going to be an entertaining and emotional day for Penn State. And given the depths that hit back in July and then the crash that came after an 0-2 start, that's a good sign for the program. To finish 8-4 would have to be considered an unqualified success to the season, taken in full context of these past 12 months and change. It's not unreasonable to say this could have ended up as a 10-win team with the roster before the sanctions — reversing the Virginia result is a no-brainer and one has to think having Silas Redd to wear down Ohio with leads of 14-3 and 14-10 in the second half would have gone a long way to closing out a win. But that hardly matters now. Eight wins could very well be a high-water mark for Penn State over the next few years as the damaging scholarship reductions first take effect this February -- the Lions still have another year to get down to 65 total scholarships, but the dropoff to 15 recruits coming in on signing day begins with this class coming up. Other than Wisconsin's talent and experience, the biggest obstacle for the Lions on Saturday may again be their own emotions. The two games Penn State was most charged up for were Ohio and Ohio State. In both cases, the Lions' pregame energy crashed after halftime, and the effect could be even more dramatic for this one as the finality begins to set in. EDGE: UW
PREDICTION: WISCONSIN 24, PENN STATE 21