Few expected the Penn State Nittany Lions to maybe even make a bowl game after it was crushed and exposed against the Michigan Wolverines just over two months ago. Yet, the ship was righted and here we are with the Nittany Lions representing the East division in the championship game.
You can find out all the information on the where, when and why of the 2016 Big Ten Championship game here.
But, today it is time to look inside the numbers and start to figure out just how this game between Penn State and Wisconsin plays itself out. As much as some believe stats don’t matter, there are some that can be very telling.
Let’s look at those stats that will be telling for the Penn State Nittany Lions.
— 300: Penn State gave up more than 300 yards rushing in its two losses this season
The Nittany Lions gave up 341 rushing yards to the Pitt Panthers and 326 yards to the Michigan Wolverines earlier this season. Not surprisingly, both games were losses for James Franklin’s team. Since then, Penn State has given up an average of 112.5 yards per game on the ground and have an eight-game win streak.
It should be noted that during those games Penn State were without Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda at linebacker. Not surprisingly, the return of those two to the lineup has coincided with PSU’s improvement on defense and against the run specifically.
That’s the good news, but the bad news is Wisconsin comes in to this game having the ground game rolling like it didn’t earlier this season. Since UW’s own loss to Michigan earlier in the year in which it rushed for just 71 yards, it has run for 200-plus yards in five of seven games. That includes 236 yards against Ohio State and an average of 230 yards per game over those same games.
Something is going to have to give in this game between teams heading in opposite directions in the run game. If Penn State can manage to hold down Corey Clement and Co., victory becomes much easier indeed.
— 104: That is the number of tackles for loss by the PSU defense in 2016
It also just so happens to be the second-best total of any Big Ten defense this season. Wisconsin on the other hand hasn’t been super in not allowing opponents in to its own backfield, ranking sixth in the conference in tackles for loss allowed (67).
Wisconsin predicates itself on being ahead of the chains while on offense, and that means positive yardage on first and second downs. A great way to ensure that doesn’t happen is for the Penn State defense to be aggressive against the run and to take advantage of an offensive line that has been leaky in pass protection too. Over the last three games, Wisconsin have allowed 8, 6, 8 and 10 tackles for loss respectively.
Penn State has racked up nine or more tackles for loss as a team in nine of 12 games this season. Put those two things together and you have to like Penn State’s chances of attacking UW in the backfield on Saturday night. Oh, and did we mention
— 32.2%: That is the third down conversion rate for Penn State’s offense this season
If you want to win games against other elite teams, you have to find a way to keep drives going when your back is against the wall. The bad news for Penn State is that it hasn’t been very good on third down’s all season long. So bad that it’s 32.2 percent conversion rate is 12th in the Big Ten.
That’s not good news when you are going up against a Badgers defense that has allowed just 26.5 percent of third down’s to be converted. Even in the two losses to Michigan and Ohio State, Wisconsin’s defense wasn’t backing down much on third downs. UW allowed those two teams to convert on just 30 percent of their third down attempts.
Penn State’s good news here comes from a vast improvement in the final month of the season. The Nittany Lions have converted on 43.8 percent of third downs this past month, after starting off the season converting less than 25 percent.
If Penn State wants to win, getting over the 40 percent mark on third downs while on offense is going to be really helpful. Without it, it could be a long night in Indianapolis.
— 12: That is the number of offensive plays Penn State has had go for 50 yards or more
We’re guessing the next nugget isn’t going to surprise you — the 12 plays of 50 yards or more lead the Big Ten in 2016, but so does Wisconsin’s defense allowing just three plays of 50-plus yards.
If Penn State isn’t going to win the third down battle, big plays would be the area to turn to. However, we see once again that it will be strength on strength when the Nittany Lions have the football. Saquon Barkley has been huge in the big play category this season, but he has just four of the 12 plays of 50 yards or more.
Here is where the Nittany Lions may be able to catch Wisconsin, because two-thirds of Penn State’s big plays have come through the air and two of the three 50-plus yard plays given up by UW’s defense have come through the air.
In total, Wisconsin has allowed 134 plays of 10-plus yards, with 68.6 percent coming through the air.
Once again, we see an area that something is going to have to give. Big plays have been a hallmark of the Big Ten championship game since its inception in 2011, can Penn State continue that tradition in its first appearance in the Big Ten title game?
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