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Burning questions: Will PSU lose opener at Wisconsin?

Photo from Wisconsin Athletics: Running back Jalen Berger

It’s summer, it’s hot outside, but this is a good time to get into the hot topics Penn State fans need to know about for football season this fall. This is the debut of our Burning Questions series, in which we will tackle the biggest issues for the Nittany Lions.

We have a list of great topics we’ll dive into in the coming days and weeks. Additionally, if fans have any Burning Questions of your own, pass them along in the comments below or on social media, and we may add your topic to our list.

For openers: Will Penn State lose its opener at Wisconsin?

This isn’t the answer PSU fans want to hear, but … yes.

I see the Lions falling in Madison on Sept. 4. Wisconsin is favored by 3.5 points, by the way, in several early lines.

Now, before anyone says, “Giger, you’re always so negative!” I do have Penn State going 9-3 this season. I made that prediction way back on Jan. 25, and I pointed out why there are reasons for optimism and pessimism.

My biggest concern is obvious: The schedule is brutal. And having to open at Wisconsin obviously puts the team under pressure right away.

There is pretty much NOTHING to like about this game, from a Penn State perspective. Let’s consider:

** It’s at Camp Randall Stadium, which will be back to full capacity.

** It’s an 11 a.m. local kickoff time. Does anyone need to be reminded how much PSU has struggled for years and years in early kickoffs on the road against good teams?

** The Lions were not a good tackling team last year — particularly early in the season — even with a defense that included outstanding ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney. This is Wisconsin. The Badgers absolutely are going to run the ball. And run the ball. And run the ball. And run … well, you know the drill.

** Even if PSU’s defense is better all around and better at tackling this season, that doesn’t mean the defense will be fully ready to go for this kind of opponent in the opener. If the Lions were going to Wisconsin in, say, week five, I’d like their chances a whole lot more to win this game. But in week one, it’s a significant challenge.

** Adding to that challenge, the NCAA has proposed to cut back some on hitting and the number of padded practices in fall camp. One byproduct of that certainly could be defensive players struggling a bit more to tackle once the game action gets going in week one, and obviously, if a team isn’t as prepared to tackle against Wisconsin, that’s going to be an issue.

** My main reason for optimism for Penn State this season is the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and what we could see on offense. I am very much looking forward to some explosive games by a Lion offense that has a lot of weapons. But will the offense be ready to hit on all cylinders in the opener, and on the road, no less? I just don’t think so.

You add all these things together, and it makes for a very difficult game to win for Penn State.

Sure, the Lions will be capable of going out and winning the game. Wisconsin doesn’t have a proven superstar running back right now, so that helps PSU’s chances. Super freshman Jalen Berger rushed for 301 yards and two TDs on 60 carries last year, and Wisconsin added Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi, who had 27 carries for 151 yards and three scores for the Tigers.

Quarterback Graham Mertz has a lot of potential but still endured ups and downs last season and needs to prove he can be consistent. Wisconsin should be solid defensively, although Yurcich’s offense and PSU’s weapons still should put up points.

The bottom line is the Badgers are a good team and always a very difficult challenge for any opponent in an opener. Plus the game is in Madison.

At this early stage, I’ll predict something like Badgers 35, Lions 27

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