Many Penn State players making the trip to Wisconsin this weekend have never played before a large crowd after the pandemic-affected season of 2020.
None of the 19th-ranked Nittany Lions has played at 80,321-seat Camp Randall Stadium, where they will face the No. 12 Badgers in a season opener Saturday at noon (TV-FOX, WEEU-AM/830).
“None of those guys (younger wide receivers) have ever experienced a crowd like ours or a crowd like we’re going to see at Wisconsin,” senior Jahan Dotson said. “I was telling them, like Coach (James) Franklin preaches to us all the time, you’re going to resort back to your training when things go south.
“Our coaches have been preparing us in a tremendous way so that when we get in those moments, we’re not flustered, our mind’s not racing, and we’re going to be cool, calm and collected.”
Penn State has a mixed history in Big Ten road openers since Franklin arrived as coach in 2014, going 4-3. This is the Lions’ first opener against a ranked opponent since a 33-7 loss to No. 2 Miami (Fla.) at home in 2001.
Wisconsin returns 17 starters on offense and defense and is considered the favorite in the Big Ten West. Beating the Badgers in its first game in Madison since 2013 would give Penn State a ton of momentum for the rest of the year.
“Wisconsin wants to run the ball,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “They’re big up front. Historically they’ve been great. They’re great this year. It’s going to be a challenge for us.
“We want to show the country what we’re all about, as far as our defensive line goes. We have a huge chip on our shoulder. What better way to challenge ourselves than to go there against that type of opponent.”
Both teams had erratic seasons in 2020, the Lions going 4-5 and the Badgers 4-3.
Wisconsin returns redshirt freshman Graham Mertz at quarterback and its top three receivers: tight end Jake Ferguson and wide receivers Chimere Dike and Jack Dunn. The Badgers, as usual, will run the football to set up the pass.
“They attack you in a lot of ways,” cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said. “He (Mertz) will drop back, but there’s also play-action stuff where your eyes are affected. Eyes are really important in this game.”
The Badgers are expected to be strong again on defense, especially in the secondary. They will challenge quarterback Sean Clifford and the Penn State offense in Mike Yurcich’s first season as coordinator.
The Lions have plenty of outstanding backs and receivers. Much will depend on how the offensive line protects Clifford and opens holes for the backs.
“It’s interesting that they’re not overly high when it comes to sacks but you feel them,” Franklin said of the Badgers. “They do a great job of pressuring the quarterback and making him feel them in the pocket. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
Much also will depend on how much Clifford has improved his accuracy, timing and ball security since last year. Yurcich has emphasized those points.
“Sean worried about too much last year,” Dotson said. “I feel like he’s taken some of the load off his shoulders and he’s just playing ball right now. That’s how he got here.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen him, so I’m excited to go out there and play with him.”
Wisconsin is a slight favorite to beat Penn State for the first time since a 45-7 rout in 2011 in Madison. The Lions have won the last four meetings, including the memorable 2016 Big Ten title game.
“We know we have a great challenge in front of us,” Dotson said. “We’re excited to take it on. We got a lot of guys who are ready to prove to the world that the team last year at Penn State was not us.”
Rich Scarcella’s pick
Wisconsin 31, Penn State 24
The Nittany Lions must play with precision and physicality in order to knock off the favored Badgers. That’s a lot to ask from a defense that allowed more than 27 points a game last year and from an offense trying to establish its identity under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
Source: Berkshire mont