As the skies get darker with winter approaching, a cloud of uncertainty also looms over the Wisconsin Badgers (4-2 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) as they get ready travel to Beaver Stadium in a showdown with the No. 21 Penn State Nittany Lions (3-3, 6-3). The Badgers are currently nine point underdogs, needing an upset to keep their faint Big Ten West hopes alive.
Sophomore quarterback Jack Coan filled in for the Badgers in the second half of last week’s win over Rutgers, with junior Alex Hornibrook leaving the game with a concussion. After Hornibrook also missed the game against Northwestern, it means the quarterback has suffered two concussions in the past three weeks.
“We don’t know for sure right now,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “If not, then obviously Jack will go, and we feel good with the preparation he’s had this week.”
With Hornibrook in the concussion protocol, it appears likely Coan will get his second career start. In his first career start against Northwestern, Coan accumulated 158 yards and one touchdown, completing 20 of 31 throws. He then added 64 yards and a touchdown, going 5-for-7 in the second half against Rutgers.
Whether Coan or Hornibrook starts, whoever plays under center will have to face a Penn State defense that is tied with Michigan’s exalted defense for most sacks in the Big Ten.
“They do a lot defensively, so you get a lot of twist games,” senior guard Michael Dieter said. “And they are good defending the run so they can get teams in passing situations, which ends up in sacks eventually…. But I also think they’re really good winning one-on-one matchups. They’ve got the physicality and the athleticism, everything you need to win one-on-one.”
“They’re talented up front, they’re talented throughout their whole defense,” offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudoplh said. “Individually they are so different. Each guy has a whole different skill set. It’s not like preparing for a team. You’ve got to prepare for the individuals and the matchups. And they do a great job of mixing pressures with that.”
Senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu was ruled out for the season on Thursday from an arm injury sustained during Wisconsin’s loss at Northwestern. Sagapolu missed UW’s triumph over Rutgers, and with the four-year starter now sidelined for the rest of the season, true freshman Bryson Williams is set to take over as the starting nose tackle.
“Every one of the reps that Bryson’s had from game one are really meaningful,” Chryst said. “With Olive down he’s gonna get more snaps. But at the same time, he doesn’t, nor can you expect him to fill Olive’s shoes. Olive is who Olive is and Bryson’s just gotta be the best him. I’ve liked the way he’s approached this whole year, and all those previous experiences help you in your next game… He’s played enough football where, he’s obviously a true freshman, but he’s not like freshman in the beginning of the year getting their first reps, first experiencing it.”
Despite Sagapolu’s absence, UW’s secondary looks primed to get a break this week with the return of freshman safety Scott Nelson and freshman cornerback Deron Harrell. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said both participated in team drills for the first time this week. Leonhard’s group will be tasked with slowing down the Big Ten’s second highest scoring offense.
For Wisconsin to have any chance at winning the Big Ten West, they must overcome their injuries on both sides of the ball and pull off an upset in a tough environment in University Park.