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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the first time in program history, Penn State is headed to the Big Ten Championship game, as the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions are set to meet sixth-ranked Wisconsin in Saturday's title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1 East) closed out the regular season with wins in each of the last eight consecutive games, downing Michigan State 45-12 to earn a share of the Big Ten regular season crown. The Badgers (10-2, 7-2 West) won the West division outright and enter the matchup on a six-game winning streak, making their fourth appearance in the Big Ten Championship game since it first began six years ago.
Following the dominant performance in the regular season victory against the Spartans, Penn State earned several Big Ten postseason awards this week.
Nittany Lion running back Saquon Barkley earned Graham-George Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year awards, in addition to First Team All-Big Ten Football Team honors from both the coaches and media.
Penn State head coach James Franklin also earned Dave McClain Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, selected by the conference media members, to mark his first Conference Coach of the Year award.
nine Nittany Lions earned selections to one of the three coaches or media 2016
All-Big Ten Football teams, with an additional five earning honorable mention
As every Big Ten honoree has been quoted this week though, the honors and awards are wholeheartedly a reflection of a collective team effort. Among postseason all the awards and predictions though, the Nittany Lions have approached the week with the same consistency and dedication to the process as any other regular season game.
"Our guys are excited and they're focused," Franklin said. "We're not going to treat it as anything different. We're not going to change how we go through our weekly game plan."
Led by second-year head coach and 2016 Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the Year Paul Chryst, the Badgers wrapped up their regular season with a 31-7 win against Minnesota last week. Wisconsin topped Iowa on the road 17-9 before defeating then-No.7 Nebraska 23-17 in overtime to kick off its recent string of six straight wins.
Penn State and Wisconsin will meet for the 18th time in program history as the Badgers own a narrow 9-8 advantage in the all-time series. The Nittany Lions have won each of the last two meetings, defeating the Badgers 24-21 in overtime in 2012 and 31-24 on the road in 2013.
"What I would say about these guys is when you think in your mind, or at least when I think in my mind, of what a traditional Big Ten team is, that's who these guys are," Franklin said.
Pregame Reading -
What To Watch For: Penn State
1. Just a quick scan of running back Saquon Barkley's certainly makes the case for his conference postseason honors. Averaging 130.25 all-purpose yards per game Barkley is tops in the Big Ten in the category, while also leading the league with 17 touchdowns on the year, including 15 rushing touchdown runs. Barkley isn't the only threat from the running back unit though, as Andre Robinson, Miles Sanders and Mark Allen have all showcased their talent this season, with Robison coming off of a two-touchdown outing against the Spartans highlighted by a career-long 40-yard touchdown catch.
2. Second Team All-Big Ten quarterback Trace McSorley has continued to impress as the leader of Penn State's high-scoring explosive offense. McSorley leads the nation in passing yards per completion, averaging 16.17 per game. He's both gutsy and effective with the deep ball, ranking within the top five for passes of 20, 30, or 40 or more yards, slotted as high as second nationally with 20 passes for 40-plus yards on the year. McSorley's arsenal includes a deep group of wide receivers, including veteran Chris Godwin who sparked a 35-0 run in the second half against Michigan State with a 34-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
3. Having battled through adversity and challenges with injuries, Penn State's defense has only continued to become more relentless throughout the season. Ranked fourth in the conference in total defense, the Nittany Lions have held their last two consecutive opponents without a touchdown. Defensive linemen Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan are atop the team standings with six sacks each this season. Combining for 7.5 sacks between the two of the them in the last four games, Schwan has registered at least a half of a sack in all four outings during the stretch.
What To Watch For: Wisconsin
1. Earlier this week, Franklin sighted the matchup between Penn State's wide receivers and the Wisconsin secondary as an interesting matchup. Not only have the Nittany Lions proven that they can come up with the big catch, but McSorley's deceptive mobility has kept defenses guessing. Come Saturday, the Badgers enter the matchup with a national-best 21 interceptions on the year. All-Big Ten Badger safety Leo Musso has picked off five passes this season, ranking second in the conference and 10th nationally in interceptions per game. Wisconsin has also limited its opponents to eight touchdown passes in 12 games this season.
2. As an entire defensive unit, the Badgers have strength all around, as Franklin pointed out strength in the Wisconsin linebacking unit as well as the secondary. With the third-ranked scoring defense nationally in the FBS standings, Wisconsin has also limited its opponents to 100.8 rushing yards per game with the third-ranked rushing defense. First Team All-Big Ten linebacker T.J. Watt is atop the team standings with 13.0 tackles for loss. With a team-high 9.5 sacks on the year, Watt is averaging nearly a sack per game at 0.79, which ranks third in the conference and 20th nationally.
3. On the offensive side of the ball, the Badgers are both strong and physical, as their ground game has surpassed the 200-yard mark in five of the last seven games. All-Big Ten running back Corey Clement is the focal point of the Badger rushing attack, as he's logged at least 100-yard performances in six of Wisconsin's last seven games, including each of the last four straight. As just the 17th Badger in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, Clement's 1,140 rushing yards ranks third in the conference, while his 103.6 rushing yards per game is second.
The Final Word -
Saturday's matchup has all of the making of a true strength-on-strength matchup with both the Badgers and the Nittany Lions are among the Big Ten's best in a few opposing categories. Keying in on just a few of the intriguing storylines, in the East Division, Penn State has won its last eight straight, averaging 40.4 points per game during the winning streak. In the West Division, Wisconsin has limited its opponents to fewer than 14 points per game, picking off a total of 11 passes in the second half of a six-game winning streak. Either way, both teams will await the outcome of another postseason matchup with Bowl selections beginning as early as 12:30 p.m. Sunday.