The college football season is officially underway. While we began with week zero, the matchups were, to be frank, weak. Now, now is the prize fans have waited an excruciatingly long time for.
Just this week alone we have:
- #3 Clemson vs #5 Georgia
- #1 Alabama vs #14 Miami
- #17 Indiana at #18 Iowa
- #23 UL – Lafayette at #21 Texas
- #19 Penn State at #12 Wisconsin
Those are just the most notable, truly an incredibly stacked weekend. For this, the focus will be on the matchup at Camp Randall Stadium featuring the Nittany Lions and Badgers. With an 11 am kickoff, both teams will have to be ready from the get-go. In this piece, we’ll focus on what to watch for in this early, yet pivotal Big Ten matchup in Madison.
Wisconsin vs Penn State: What To Watch For
While easy to point out, both team’s seasons hang in the balance of their respective QB’s. For Penn State, it’s Sean Clifford. The first three-time captain in Penn State’s history is entering his final season still looking to prove critics wrong. After a messy start, with his job on the line, Clifford turned his play around the last half of the season. In the first five games, he threw eight interceptions, in the final four, just one. With that being said, the question posed is was that due to lack of quality competition over that final stretch, or did Clifford and coach James Franklin figure it out. The potential is there, as is the big-game experience, Saturday will show if he’s ready to lead Penn State back to the Big Ten title game for the first time since 2016.
For Wisconsin, Graham Mertz remains the most polarizing figure in Madison. Unlike Clifford, Mertz started the 2020 season on fire, sending Badger fans into a frenzy. Then, he hit a wall. With some stoppages due to Covid-19, and a never-ending list of injuries to key skill position players, Mertz and the Badger offense stalled out the final four games of the regular season. A 2-0 start turned into a disappointing 3-3 finish fast. It will be key for Paul Chryst and company to get the redshirt sophomore comfortable quickly. A confident Graham Mertz is a game, and season changer for the Badgers. Surrounded by key returnees like Jake Ferguson, Danny Davis III, Kendric Pryor, and Jalen Berger, as well as a boost by Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi, Mertz can lead this team past its high expectations.
Both team’s success on the field can be directly correlated to their history of success in the trenches. In particular, the Wisconsin offensive line vs the Penn State defensive line. Both consistently control the line of scrimmage. The Badgers return an experienced group, with loads of talented depth, but not as proven as usual Badger lines of the past. The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, lost multiple talented playmakers on the line to the NFL and transferring. Nonetheless, they recruit at a high enough level to where the cupboard is not dry of any talent shortage down there. This will be a fascinating battle, and may very well decide the outcome of the game.
On the flip side, Penn State is looking for massive improvements on an underperforming offensive line that was prone to giving up high sack totals and provided little push in the run game. That being said, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will be looking for someone along the pass-rushing group to step up, as this group had uncharacteristically low pressure and sack rate last season. Nick Herbig and Keanu Benton are candidates to make that jump.
From the jubilant fans that will be allowed back into the stadium, to the players and coaches on the sidelines, expect a LOT of energy. Both Penn State and Wisconsin are coming off disappointing 2020 campaigns and will be looking to begin to rectify those mishaps to start the season. Throughout last season, both programs looked lost. Much of that can be credited to the lack of life in the stadium. For Penn State, a fan-less “White Out” game vs Ohio State. For Wisconsin, fan-less for ranked showdowns with Indiana and Northwestern. While yes, fans don’t necessarily dictate outcomes. Fans don’t score touchdowns, come up with stops, or recover a fumble.
Instead, they bring what can’t be replicated. A spirit. A fire. They provide fuel for their teams. Expect fuel, expect a raucous crowd, and lastly, expect loads of energy between both teams Saturday morning in Camp Randall.
Saturday morning will you will see many things. Two quarterbacks looking to prove they deserve to be as advertised. Historically dominant lines going face to face. And lastly, you’ll see energy in the stadium not seen in two years. Just wait till it’s time to “Jump Around”.