The Penn State Nittany Lions (7-4) have shocked the nation with a winning season after sanctions rocked the program and the team dropped its first two games against Ohio University and Virginia.
A season-ending win over the Big Ten Championship-bound Wisconsin Badgers would cap off the remarkable season with a fitting exclamation point. It’s senior day, after all, and these seniors would love to make a lasting impression by dealing a blow to the Badgers.
Here are some X-Factors for both the Nittany Lions and Badgers in this showdown at Happy Valley.
Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State
Star middle linebacker Michael Mauti is out after leaving last week’s game against Indiana. That leaves Hodges as the go-to guy at “Linebacker U” in what will be a difficult task to stop Montee Ball. Ball is trying to set the NCAA-scoring record by recording his 80th-career touchdown. He tied the record last week against Ohio State.
Hodges, somewhat in Mauti’s shadow, is no slouch either and is gaining recognition heading into the offseason. He’s currently the seventh-ranked outside linebacker by NFLDraftScout.com and could rise even further with a big finish against the Badgers.
Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State
The sophomore back started the season as the backup fullback but has been a pleasant surprise as the primary ball-carrier for the Nittany Lions. His hard running will challenge the stout defensive front of the Badgers that’s allowing a Big Ten-low 140 yards per game on the ground.
Silas Redd, the team’s 1,000-yard rusher from 2011, bailed in the wake of NCAA sanctions and went to USC, the nation’s preseason No. 1-ranked team.
Here we are in the last week of the regular season (for most teams), and Zwinak has outrushed Redd, 821 yards to 740. The Nittany Lions and Trojans are also coincidentally both 7-4 heading into this weekend.
Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
Taylor is the key to the Wisconsin defense stuffing Zwinak and putting pressure on quarterback Matt McGloin. The unit, led by Taylor, has been vicious against the run this season. He’s racked up 104 tackles to lead the stout Badgers defense.
Taylor’s 12 tackles for loss earned him a spot as LOTT Impact Trophy quarterfinalist. The award honors the best defensive impact player in the nation at the end of the season. He did not make the semifinalist list that was announced on Nov. 15.