No. 19 Penn State aims to continue its recent dominance of No. 12 Wisconsin when the two Big Ten powers open the season on Saturday at Madison, Wis.
The Nittany Lions have won four straight meetings and six of the past seven. The Badgers last prevailed in 2011 when they rolled to a 45-7 home victory.
Neither team wants to open the campaign with a conference loss, especially with excitement high following the shortened 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, Penn State coach James Franklin sees this season as a night-and-day difference from 2020.
Penn State, James Franklin talk opener after COVID-shortened 2020 season
“It’s hard for me not to compare everything to last year just because that’s the most recent thing we’ve gone through, so comparing it to last year, it’s not even close,” Franklin recently told reporters. “Having spring ball, having all the summer walkthroughs, I think we’re in a good place.”
The Nittany Lions brought in Mike Yurcich to pump up on the offense after he spent last season as offensive coordinator at Texas.
One of Yurcich’s main orders of business is getting quarterback Sean Clifford to take a major step forward in his third season as a starter.
Clifford passed for 1,883 yards and 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions last season when Penn State went 4-5.
“Any quarterback that has his demeanor and attitude and willingness to learn and understands every day that there’s something more to attain, his ceiling is very high,” Yurcich told reporters. “I think he can get a lot better. … He’s a tremendous leader. Sean’s all about helping this team win.”
Clifford has a top-rate receiver in Jahan Dotson, who caught 52 passes for 884 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Clifford also averaged 24.6 yards on eight punt returns, returning one for a score.
The Nittany Lions feature a trio of solid defensive players in linebackers Ellis Brooks (team-leading 60 tackles in 2020) and Jesse Luketa (59 tackles) and safety Jaquan Brisker (57 tackles).
The Badgers went 4-3 last season and are hoping to see improved play from quarterback Graham Mertz, who passed for 1,238 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
Mertz had a memorable college debut when he tossed five touchdown passes against Illinois. But he had just four over the final six games.
“First off, going back to last year, it was definitely one of those years that you learn from and you grow from,” Mertz told reporters. “And for me, I always set the bar really high for myself. And I know what we want to do here is something that’s never been done. And I know the whole team is on that same wave.”
Tight end Jake Ferguson is back after leading the Badgers with 30 receptions for 305 yards and four touchdowns last season. He has 10 career scoring receptions.
The Wisconsin defense is led by inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, who has led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons. He had 80 stops in 2019 and 52 in last season’s seven-game slate.
“On the field, in meetings or workouts, he’s a tremendous example,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst told reporters. “You point to how you want to approach it, he’s got that. He brings an energy along with it. He’s doing it in his style. There’s no question that he’s one of our leaders.”
–Field Level Media