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Penn State Nittany Lions earn spot in surprising Big Ten title matchup

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The Sports Xchange
Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) celebrates his touchdown against the Pittsburgh Panthers with Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley (9) during the first quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on September 10 , 2016. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) celebrates his touchdown against the Pittsburgh Panthers with Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley (9) during the first quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on September 10 , 2016. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

An unlikely Big Ten championship game between teams most college football pundits considered middle-of-the-pack finishers in their respective divisions could propel one team into the College Football Playoff mix.

Maybe.

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Right now, the Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten, No. 7 CFP) and Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 7-2, No. 6 CFP) are focused on one another. For good reason, as either should have a compelling argument for a right to chase the national championship by beating the other at Lucas Oil Field on Saturday.

"I think whenever you have an opportunity to go out and compete again against a great team and obviously if you're playing the Big Ten championship game, both teams have earned the right to get there and I think it has to carry weight," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

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Franklin's Nittany Lions bring one of college football's youngest rosters into the championship but also one of its most explosive and disciplined.

Dual-threat, first-year starter Trace McSorley and playmaking running back Saquon Barkley have led a stunning about-face for Penn State's offense. Guided by new coordinator Joe Moorhead, the Nittany Lions are scoring more than 36 points per game and are among the nation's elite at executing big plays. Only six FBS teams have run more plays for 20-plus yards than Penn State's 80.

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"They're a big-play team," Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegle said. "They have the most offensive plays 25 (yards) or more in the Big Ten. I think that starts with a talented wide receiver, a big and very talented tight end, a quarterback who's a dual-threat guy who can hurt you both with his arm and with his legs and obviously, a very talented running back as well. They've got a lot of weapons on their offense that we have to account for."

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Biegle's concerns are illustrated by the numbers Penn State's put up this season.

McSorley broke the program's record for total offense in a season last week. He's accounted for 3,348 yards so far this year. Of those, 2,976 have come through the air with a good portion going to Mike Gesicki. The 6-foot-6 tight end has also had a historic season. A year after leading the team in drops, Gesicki set program marks for receptions (44) and yards (610) in a season. He's caught three touchdowns and receiver Chris Godwin has nine and is the team's most elusive downfield option.

The return of Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda on defense has keyed a midseason defensive turnaround, too. The veteran linebackers missed four and five games, respectively, earlier this season but returned for the Ohio State game. Penn State's held opponents to 86 rushing yards per game since.

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Wisconsin, meanwhile, is used to that type of consistency. The Badgers have won their division four out of the last six seasons under three different coaches.

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH

--QB Trace McSorley continues to make smart decisions on zone reads, augment the running game with his own rushing abilities and zip the ball down the field for his receivers to make plays. It's tough to defend all aspects he brings and he's become adept at finding something to exploit in every game.

--WR Chris Godwin is on a roll with 13 catches for 253 yards and four touchdowns in the last three weeks. For a team that spreads the ball around so much, Godwin's size and ability to run after the catch make him the team's most dangerous downfield option.

--RB Andre Robinson is behind star Saquon Barkley on the depth chart but has proven himself good for a big play or two here and there with the reps he's earned. They usually come as a spell for Barkley when teams have apparently not accounted for his comparable skillset. Considering the beating Barkley's taken in the last two games, Robinson and Miles Sanders may do more against the Badgers.

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--TE Mike Gesicki is in the zone right now. He's snagging overthrown passes with ease, laying out to try to catch others and doing it all through heavy coverage. Though still not a strong blocker, Gesicki's chemistry with McSorley makes him a big threat every time the pocket breaks down.

--LB Jason Cabinda will be busy on Saturday shifting Penn State's front around to handle Wisconsin's big formations. He continues to fill gaps with force and will play a big role in closing down running gaps for Corey Clement.

--DT Curtis Cothran is winning the battle inside more and more frequently and made an impact opening up pass-rush lanes against Michigan State. He and the rest of Penn State's defensive tackles will have to keep it up against a strong Wisconsin offensive line.

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