If you wipe the events of July 23 off the face of the earth, Penn State is playing Wisconsin on Saturday for a berth in the Big Ten Championship.
A win for the Nittany Lions would have vaulted them into Indianapolis over the ineligible Ohio State Buckeyes. A loss would have tied them with the Badgers, and Wisconsin would advance to the conference title game on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
But such isn’t the case. Penn State was sanctioned by the NCAA, rendering the Lions postseason-ineligible for this season and the next three. Wisconsin clinched the Leaders Division two weeks ago, even though the Badgers sit in third place.
At 3:30 p.m. in Beaver Stadium this Saturday, the Lions will play one of the closest things to a bowl game they have in 2012. Bill O’Brien will conclude his inaugural coaching campaign in finite fashion. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema will contest either Nebraska or Michigan on Dec. 1 to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
“I just admired what [Bielema] did with the Wisconsin team,” O’Brien said. “He does what he believes in, plays tough, hard nosed football. It's going to be a difficult game for us on Saturday, and I think we're going to have to do a great job of controlling our emotions, because it's going to be an emotional beginning to that game, cannot deny that. So we have to do a great job there and have to be ready to go for the physical challenge of playing Wisconsin.”
Bielema said he expects his team to match Penn State’s intensity Saturday.
“They know they're not doing anything beyond this weekend, so it's an emotional push,” the Wisconsin coach said. “Our guys have had a lot invested in every game this year. And the part I've kind of said all along is they're a very resilient group.”
Penn State’s defense will be hard-pressed to stop senior running back Montee Ball, who is one touchdown away from setting an NCAA record for most career touchdowns. Ball leads the Big Ten with 1,417 total rushing yards, averaging 128.8 per game.
“He’s a good back, not only in the Big Ten but in the country,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “He’s a guy that can run you over and he’s a guy that can make you miss. It’s a big challenge for us, but I think we’re up to the task.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Wisconsin is a polar opposite of Indiana — Penn State’s most recent opponent. The Badgers only allow 106.6 average yards per game on the ground to the Hoosiers’ 235.5.
Running back Zach Zwinak will face his toughest challenge as a starter, but O’Brien said he’s sticking with the redshirt sophomore.
“I would tell you that basically you've got a guy there in Zwinak that's gained 100 yards in four straight games, over 100,” O’Brien said. “Here's a guy it's hard to go against the grain and say, ‘Okay, Zach we're going to take you out just to play another guy.’ Here is a guy that's on a bit of a roll.”
Quarterback Matt McGloin is another guy who’s been on a tear. The redshirt senior nearly became the first Penn State quarterback ever to pass for 400 yards in a single game last week against the Hoosiers.
Zwinak can improve on his strong season for as many as two more years, but McGloin is out of eligibility. The Scranton-native has been building on his success all year, and Wisconsin will be his last game for Penn State.
McGloin said beating the Badgers would be an ideal ending to the story of the seniors.
“Well that’s what we’re trying to do, especially the senior class, is leave this place off on a high note,” McGloin said. “Finishing with eight wins is a successful season for us. It’s a successful season no matter what.