College Football Odds, Picks, Predictions: Penn State vs. Wisconsin Betting Preview (Saturday, Sept. 4)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images. Pictured: Sean Clifford.
Penn State vs. Wisconsin Odds
Arguably the two best Big Ten teams outside of Ohio State will face off in a cross-division season opener on Saturday.
Both Penn State and Wisconsin left numerous questions on the table after uncharacteristic campaigns last season. Wisconsin lost three straight conference games spread out among COVID-19 cancellations.
A win in the first-ever Duke’s Mayo Bowl alleviated concerns, but questions linger about whether or not the offensive attack that led to consistent New Year’s Six bowls will return.
Penn State lost five straight before winning the final four remaining games of its all-Big Ten schedule. The Nittany Lions struggled with injuries deep through the skill position depth chart while getting acclimated to a new offensive coordinator.
The defense, known for being top-10 in Havoc yearly, finished 40th in the country. There are plenty of questions for James Franklin with yet another offensive coordinator and a defense needing to return to contending form.
The Nittany Lions return close to the national average on both sides of the ball, as 74% of the offense and 76% of the defense returns counting stats, per transfer activity and returning production.
After just one season in State College, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca is out and longtime Oklahoma State coordinator Mike Yurcich is now in charge of putting points on the board.
It was an off-season for the defense, starting with Micah Parsons opting out of the season and before becoming part of the Dallas Cowboys roster.
Coordinator Brent Pry took responsibility over the offseason, refocused on getting players to buy into the system. While the Nittany Lions remained top-10 in tackling, coverage and Finishing Drives, each category took a dive for the defensive unit.
Nittany Lions Offense
A review of Yurcich’s resume gives investors hope that this could be the best season yet for quarterback Sean Clifford. The junior quarterback indicates he feels like a different player under Yurcich through fall camp.
Clifford regressed in 2020, recording just five big-time throws and committing 10 turnover-worthy plays.
Although the touchdown-to-interception ratio is aesthetically on pace with his career trajectory, the Nittany Lions quarterback’s production slid compared to the 2019 season.
Fine, I'll be the one to say it. This was a TERRIBLE throw by Sean Clifford. pic.twitter.com/2s9E9WrxEH
— Ben Stevens (@BenScottStevens) November 14, 2020
Ciarrocca did not change much from a scheme and run ratio, averaging 80% of plays in 11 with a 53% lean to the pass. All of that will change with Yurcich calling the plays. Last season, Yurcich ran exclusively 11 with Sam Ehlinger and the weapons on the Longhorns roster.
Before serving as quarterbacks coach at Ohio State in 2018, the coordinator lit up scoreboards at Oklahoma State.
Expect Penn State to line up much of what the Cowboys fielded from 2013-18. Half of the formations will come in 11, but Yurich also ran 10 personnel on 30% of snaps.
While the run-pass ratio was an even distribution in 11, the empty-back set will feature the pass on 70% of snaps.
Yurcich will do everything he can to get the ball in the hands of wide receiver Jahan Dotson.
All Jahan Dotson needed was ☝️ hand. 😤
PSU (+10.5) cuts the deficit to 12.
— Action Network Colleges (@ActionColleges) November 1, 2020
Only one offensive line position had competition for a new starter, and with consistent play out of Clifford, the Havoc Allowed rank should improve from 41st last season.
Nittany Lions Defense
The perennial bite of the Penn State defense was missing through the first five games of the 2020 season. There were big losses from a personnel perspective.
Brent Pry continued a 4-3 scheme that inserted a nickelback in passing downs, but incorrect pre-snap alignment and missed assignments allowed offenses to gain explosive plays in handfuls.
Over the four-game winning stretch to end the season, Penn State had rediscovered Havoc and kept every opponent to 24 points or less.
Jaquan Brisker has really had himself a solid season, confidence on display to crash down on this play so aggressively. pic.twitter.com/8rz6nC3CjH
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) December 6, 2020
Jaquan Brisker leads one of the deepest secondaries in the nation after posting 49 tackles and five pass breakups. Even more impressive, through 488 total snaps, Brisker logged just one missed tackle.
The depth in the secondary may lead to more play of the 4-2-5 scheme as Pry looks for answers at the linebacker position.
The defensive line consists of player transfers and a number of position swaps. Pry’s ultimate goal is to field edge rushers capable of getting Penn State back in the top 10 in Havoc.
The Nittany Lions fell from 11th in tackles for loss per game to outside the top 45 in 2020, as getting into the backfield will be a key factor in Penn State’s success.
The 2020 season may be a complete throwaway from a statistical perspective. COVID-19 ravaged Wisconsin through its 4-3 campaign, along with an injury to quarterback Graham Mertz that was not disclosed until this past spring.
The offense finished 46th in Success Rate and 77th in Finishing Drives, both out-of-order anomalies in the Paul Chryst era.
The defense was rock-solid in getting Wisconsin to Charlotte for a victory in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Badgers return 83% of the defense, per TARP, great news for a unit that was top-10 in Success Rate and Finishing Drives.
Like Penn State, the Badgers will be looking for answers to a dip in Havoc. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit finished an uncharacteristic 43rd with the primary driver being a tackles for loss per game rank of 93rd.
Joe Rudolph returns for his sixth season as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.
The Badgers primarily use 11 personnel but often switch to a two-back set in 21 depending on down and distance. The focus will continue to be on establishing the run, with a surprising victor in fall camp at first-string running back.
Chryst on Mellusi being the No. 1 RB over Berger: “He’s been really consistent. It means a lot.”
Expecting a number of guys to contribute, including Guerendo. Mentions that Braelon Allen has some things he can give them, too. pic.twitter.com/UToMKPvQZw
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) August 30, 2021
Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi has taken over duties from Jalen Berger for being consistent throughout camp.
Mellusi backed up Travis Etienne and recorded 27 rushing attempts last season. Nothing in the advance stats from 2020 suggests Mellusi is an explosive back, as he created just one missed tackle with an average of 3.07 yards after contact. Mellusi had the lowest elusiveness rank of any Clemson player with at least 10 carries in 2020.
If the transfer can return to 2019 form, when he created seven missed tackles and averaged four yards after contact, Wisconsin may have the explosive running back it needs.
— IKE Badgers Podcast (@IKE_Badgers) August 31, 2021
One area to watch is left tackle Tyler Beach, who is recovering from a left leg injury.
There is experience in the two-deep at multiple positions, but the blindside tackle for Mertz is paramount to the success of the passing game.
Both tight end Jake Ferguson and wide receiver Chimere Dike led the Badgers in receptions in 2020 and look for continued continuity in the passing game.
Considering linebacker is the center of all questions on the Penn State defense, the success of the Wisconsin offense may come down to Ferguson over the middle.
Jake Ferguson making his granddaddy Barry Alvarez proud. pic.twitter.com/fuI2lBxg97
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 23, 2018
Wisconsin returns the best back seven of any other team in the Big Ten, led by linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal.
While poor tackling grades were consistent throughout the defense, Sanborn logged an individual rank of seventh among all FBS linebackers who played at least 250 snaps.
The @BadgerFootball defense has been on the field twice.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 15, 2020
Keeanu Benton returns to nose tackle to control the A gaps, a big reason Wisconsin ranked sixth in Defensive Line Yards.
Four-star freshman Hunter Wohler is expected to work his way into a defensive backfield that goes 10 deep on the depth chart.
All eyes will be on Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens at the edge positions, as Wisconsin fell to 104th in Sack Rate during 2020.
Penn State vs. Wisconsin Matchup Analysis
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Penn State Offense vs. Wisconsin Defense
Wisconsin Offense vs. Penn State Defense
Pace of Play / Other
Penn State vs. Wisconsin Betting Pick
Both Penn State and Wisconsin will be searching for answers from underwhelming 2020 seasons.
There are positives in both fall camps, from Mertz progression as a third-year quarterback for the Badgers to Penn State focus on eliminating mistakes with Clifford.
The biggest victory in the offseason may have been the hire of Yurcich as offensive coordinator for the Nittany Lions.
He has depth at offensive line, specifically at the tackle positions. That is key against a Wisconsin defensive front that has one of the best nose tackles in the nation but lacks chaos at defensive end.
This will allow Clifford the time he needs to run through familiar 11 personnel sets and the new 10 personnel that will consist of getting the ball into explosive playmakers hands with low risk play calling. If Penn State improves a Finishing Drives rank of 76th, additional points on the board may lead to an outright victory.
As for the Wisconsin offense, Mertz started 2020 throwing a near-perfect game against Illinois. The Penn State secondary will present a tougher challenge with a projection to be a top-20 unit in FBS.
The expectation is a strong ground game featuring Mellusi and Berger, while Ferguson continues to get the lion’s share of targets at tight end. The Wisconsin offense may be devoid of explosive plays from outside targets, and Mellusi still has plenty to prove through the ground attack.
Although the defensive coordinators have not changed on either side, it is tough to ignore tackling ranks of eighth for the Nittany Lions and 76th for the Badgers. The inability to generate a pass rush or make tackles on explosive plays may have Wisconsin playing on its heels the entire game.
Our Action Network projection lists the game at Wisconsin -2.5 with a total of 51. The total is in line with the market, as Yurcich generally runs a top-20 tempo and Wisconsin consistently ranks as the slowest in FBS.
Without pressure on Clifford, taking Penn State and the points is putting our faith in one of the best offensive coordinators in the game.