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It’s a game within a game for Penn State, Wisconsin

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 26:  Penn State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead. The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Michigan State Spartans 45-12 to win the Big Ten East Division on November 26, 2016 at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire)
Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire

At the Big Ten Conference Championship Game, it’s the game within a game, the back-room stuff for football junkies, the behind-the-curtain X-and-O reason why the Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2) will meet the Wisconsin Badgers (10-2) on Saturday night at Indianapolis.

Let’s make this simple.

Penn State is here because it has undergone an offensive revolution — from plodding and predictable to fast-paced, efficient and downright scary.

Wisconsin is here because it weathered plenty of changes, but never lost its identity, based on a gritty, unyielding defense.

Who wins this matchup?

Who knows?

But it’s going to be fun to watch.

It revolves around the coordinators who have helped propel the Nittany Lions and Badgers to a championship level when no outsiders came close to believing.

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was plucked away from his head-coaching perch at — wait for it — Fordham University. He has made huddles a dirty word in Happy Valley. The go-go Lions are averaging 36.6 points per game.
Quarterback Trace McSorley is thriving with an underrated receiver corps, while running back Saquon Barkley is as effective as any ground-gainer in the nation.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin has maintained its excellent standard with defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was fired after last season’s coaching change at USC. It has been a dizzying career for Wilcox, who had stops with Boise State, Tennessee and Washington before landing with the Trojans and then the Badgers.

Wisconsin looks like a fit for him. Wilcox’s defense ranks seventh in total yards (292 per game), third in rushing (100.8) and third in points allowed (13.7), the same point total as last season, when the Badgers led the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The innovation of Moorhead’s Penn State offense.

The aggressiveness of Wilcox’s Wisconsin defense.

Moorhead’s offense — a run-pass option — plays to the improvisational strengths of McSorley, who has a sixth sense about when to let Barkley work and when it’s better for a toss to the receivers, who are adept at getting open.

McSorley, a redshirt sophomore in his first season as a starter, leads the FBS in yards per completion (16.17), while ringing up passing games of 332 (twice), 335 and 376 yards. Overall, Penn State has thrown just five interceptions (sixth nationally).

Moorhead’s strategic prowess is obvious, but McSorley has been more impressed by the coach’s positive attitude, upbeat style and attention to detail. Most Lions players have said it’s the most fun they’ve ever had playing football.

Penn State coach James Franklin said he visualized such a thing last year when he identified Moorhead as an attractive addition, then interviewed him at a New York hotel (until 3 a.m.) following the National Football Foundation banquet.

“I brought Joe in because I thought his system would fit the personnel that we have,’’ Franklin said.

“He has done a really good job of taking advantage of the personnel we have here. It has been a really nice marriage.

“I love working with Joe. He has a really creative system. He’s a really smart guy. He knows how to work hard, but also how to have fun doing it, which I think is a really, really valuable trait to learn.’’

Wilcox, the son of Dave Wilcox, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played for the San Francisco 49ers, also believes in fun… in a different sort of way.

He doesn’t have a defined style, but adapts to his personnel. He stepped into Wisconsin’s 3-4 base defense and refined it.

Penn State and Joe Moorhead versus Wisconsin and Justin Wilcox (pictured) will represent the central chess match in the Big Ten Championship Game.  (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)

Penn State and Joe Moorhead versus Wisconsin and Justin Wilcox (pictured) will represent the central chess match in the Big Ten Championship Game. (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)

Some qualities are non-negotiable. His defenses are known for physicality and toughness. The Badgers also have displayed great playmaking ability. They have 21 interceptions, leading the FBS, including 11 in the past three games.

That continues a trend. Wilcox’s 2009 defense at Boise State ranked 14th in scoring defense and third in turnover margin. His 2014 USC defense was top 20 nationally in turnover margin and opponent third-down conversion rate. Last season’s USC defense scored five touchdowns.

It boils down to preparation.

“It’s hard work, putting your time in, getting dirty and sweaty,’’ Wilcox told LandOf10.com.

“That investment, that’s not Disneyland fun, it’s not vacation fun, it’s not going-to-the-beach fun. It’s just not.

“It’s a different kind of (satisfaction) when you invest fully in something and then you see the benefit of it. The benefits can be you making a sack or an interception, or it can be just how you live your life. That’s the great thing about football … seeing those things come to fruition.’’

Penn State and Wisconsin have arrived at the Big Ten mountaintop.

It’s in no small measure due to the work of Moorhead and Wilcox.

Now they square off.

If you like football’s punch and counter-punch, you’re going to love this matchup.

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