INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul Chryst and James Franklin left the outside world behind Friday.
As college football pundits debated whether two Big Ten teams should make the four-team playoff, the two coaches vying for a Big Ten championship Saturday night trained their attention on something less nebulous: Winning one more game.
For No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 8 Penn State, it’s not the selection committee that matters right now. It’s taking home the trophy and winning the title.
“The only thing that exists for us is Wisconsin and the Big Ten championship game,” said Franklin, the Penn State coach. “I’m not going to sit here and make a case for us. Our whole focus will be on Wisconsin and getting ready for this game.”
That may sound good in the confines of a locker room or in a stadium decked out in cardinal and blue. Or at least until Sunday afternoon, when the playoff choices become final.
But even inside Lucas Oil Stadium, it’s hard to move beyond the resumes of these teams.
Wisconsin (10-2, No. 6 CFP) earned its fourth division crown in six years with six straight victories and by posting a 3-2 mark against top-10 teams. The only stumbles were a seven-point loss at No. 2 Michigan and an overtime loss to No. 2 Ohio State.
“I think one quality of this team that I’ve appreciated a ton this year is their ability to make the most of the moment,” Chryst said of his Badgers. “They’ve done a good job of that. So I don’t spend any time thinking about what you’re asking about (the playoffs). It’s not a big deal right now. We’d be doing this game and this team a real disservice if we didn’t put all of our energy into it.”
Penn State (10-2, No. 7) is the surprise newcomer to championship weekend.
It got here by winning eight straight since a 39-point drubbing at the hands of Michigan in late September. And while they only played one ranked team during that stretch, they did hand the Buckeyes their only loss of the season.
Franklin declined several times to explain why his own team deserved to play for the national championship, though he did imply the Nittany Lions may have won the nation’s toughest division — the Big Ten East.
He’d just rather let the conference title make the case for him.
“I’m not sure about resumes, what resumes have to do with the Big Ten championship game,” Franklin said. “I think to play for a Big Ten championship is a tremendous honor on its own and then to find a way to win this game and take that baby home would be great.”
Here are some other things to watch Saturday:
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley looks good to go Franklin. “He’s been drinking a lot of milk all week and orange juice and vitamin C,” Franklin said before turning to a reference from “The Karate Kid.” ”We flew in Mr. Miyagi, hit him on the ankle with the hands.”
The bigger question will be Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who left last week’s game with a head injury and is questionable. If Hornibrook plays, Chryst will likely use his starter and backup Bart Houston. Otherwise, Houston will have to win it. Wisconsin also lists defensive lineman Conor Sheehy (right arm) as questionable.
In an era where gaudy offensive numbers and high-scoring games have become the norm, these teams are throwbacks — relying heavily on the run and stout defenses. Wisconsin leads the nation with 21 interceptions, 11 in the past three weeks. Penn State finished fourth in the Big Ten in total defense and hasn’t allowed a touchdown in its last two games.
BACK HOME AGAIN
Indiana has been a fertile ground for both teams recently. The Badgers have won eight straight regular-season games against Purdue and Indiana and won two of the first three title games in Indy. Penn State, meanwhile, is making its third trip to the state since Oct. 29 when they routed Purdue 62-24. Two weeks later, they hung on for a 45-31 victory at Indiana.
Wisconsin won the Big Ten’s inaugural title game 42-39 in 2011 and Michigan State drove for a late score to beat Iowa 16-13 last year. In between, the games have been mostly blowouts. This time, at least on paper, it looks like a more evenly matched contest — one that may whip the large crowd into a frenzy Saturday night.