BRING ON THE BADGERS: The Big Ten Championship is next. Can the Lions shock the Badgers?
James Franklin perfectly summed up what this improbable, magical season has meant for his team and program.
“Instead of talking about what Penn State was, people are now talking about what Penn State is, and that’s exciting,” Franklin said Sunday afternoon.
The Nittany Lions wrapped up the Big Ten East title with Saturday’s 45-12 drubbing of Michigan State, and now they’ll face Wisconsin this weekend in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship.
There could be more at stake than just a league title, too, as the winner will remain alive for a possible berth in the College Football Playoff.
Wisconsin is 10-2 and ranked No. 6 in the CFP. Penn State is 10-2 and ranked No. 8.
Many believe No. 2 Ohio State is a lock to make it to the Final Four, so the question is whether the committee would put a second Big Ten team in, one that has two losses.
Franklin was asked on a teleconference Sunday if the Big Ten champion should get a spot in the field. At first he said he doesn’t have a strong opinion on it, then surprisingly did dive into the fray.
“I think you can make the argument that the Big Ten is stronger than any conference in the country,” Franklin said before adding, “If you’re playing in the Big Ten championship game, both have earned it. I think it has to carry weight (for the committee). Championship games should carry a lot of weight, in my mind.”
While Penn State is getting set to make its first appearance in the Big Ten championship game, the opponent is no stranger to it at all. Wisconsin will play for the league title for the fourth time in six years, and will do so with its third head coach in that time frame, Paul Chryst.
“That’s unique, I would guess,” Chryst said.
The Badgers also have made it to recent Big Ten title games with Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen at the helm.
While this has been a year of resurgence for Penn State, it’s just another typical good year for Wisconsin. The Badgers have won at least 10 games for the third consecutive season, and for the sixth time in eight years.
The secret to their success is no secret at all.
“As long as I can remember, Wisconsin’s always been really good up front on both sides of the ball,” Franklin said.
That’s the case again this year, as well. When he was asked about standout Badgers running back Corey Clement, who has 1,140 yards rushing, Franklin actually veered back into a discussion about the team’s line.
“It starts up front with Wisconsin. … (The running back) is able to do the things he’s able to do because they’re so good on the offensive line. That’s where it starts and always will start,” Franklin said.
Penn State fans already know that two of the program’s biggest wins over the past decade came against the Badgers.
In the famous “fighters” game, the Lions prevailed at home, 24-21, in 2012, giving the team its signature win in the first season of the sanctions and an 8-4 finish.
Emotional first-year coach Bill O’Brien called the team “a bunch of fighters” on the field after the win, but because his voice cracked, many people believed he used an expletive instead of fighters.
The next year, Penn State was a 24-point underdog in the regular-season finale at Wisconsin. The Lions pulled off a huge upset, 31-24, and afterward, O’Brien said of the gigantic point spread, “I thought it was ridiculous.” That turned out to be the final game he coached at Penn State before leaving for the NFL.
The point spread this time around has Wisconsin favored by 3 points, so it wouldn’t be much of an upset if PSU wins. It would, however, be yet another remarkable achievement for a team that started 2-2 before stunning everyone with its current eight-game winning streak.
“It’s awesome,” senior center Brian Gaia, speaking after Saturday’s win, said about playing for the Big Ten title. “I don’t know if I have any words to describe it right now, but I know we still have one more game to get to the goal we already want, so we just have to focus on this week.”