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Thursday, October 9, 2008
Wisconsin defense moves on to bigger test

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The film session wasn't a fun one for Wisconsin senior defensive tackle Mike Newkirk.

He saw signs of progress against Ohio State. The Badgers' defense leveled several teeth-chattering hits on ball carriers, forced Terrelle Pryor into some poor decisions and shut down the Buckeye Brians (Robiskie and Hartline) for most of the game.

But Newkirk knew how the movie would end. On the decisive drive, the Badgers failed to recover two fumbles, left passing lanes open for Pryor and Hartline and had a complete meltdown in the red zone, which Pryor converted into the game-winning 11-yard touchdown run.

"It's hard," Newkirk said. "It's just another scar, but it's something you've got to learn from and find some way to use it to make you better. There's only two ways you can go from this past weekend. It's up or further down.

"We've got to get ourselves out of this rut."

A two-game slide that has dropped Wisconsin from the top 10 to out of the AP Poll is just one of several incentives for the Badgers when they host sixth-ranked Penn State on Saturday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). A third consecutive loss would effectively end Wisconsin's hopes for a league title, and most likely a fifth consecutive January bowl berth.

Wisconsin must re-establish itself at home, where it won 16 consecutive games before the Ohio State setback. Wisconsin must re-establish itself at night after winning 11 straight under the lights before last Saturday. And perhaps most important, Wisconsin must re-establish itself against Penn State, which cruised to a 38-7 win last year in Happy Valley.

"They took it to us pretty well last year," Newkirk said. "Just like it's not a good feeling when you lose a close heartbreaker at the end of the game, it's not a good feeling to go out there and have the game lost from the beginning. That's something we're hoping to get back.

"It's in our house this year, but none of that matters if you're not doing what you need to do. We can only use Camp Randall as an asset if we make it so. We've got to give the crowd something to cheer about."

Most are quick to praise the changes for Penn State's offense, but Newkirk points out the continuity that also makes the Nittany Lions so dangerous. The offensive line returned intact, and with another year of experience, Newkirk calls the group the best line Wisconsin has faced to date.

"Their center [A.Q. Shipley], if there's a better one in college football, I'd like to see him," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said this week. "They do a great job of securing the point of attack as well as getting up to the next level and throwing some blocks downfield as well."

The Badgers' defensive front also is among the team's most veteran units, but the line's production needs to improve Saturday night. In conference play, Wisconsin ranks 10th in rushing defense (177.5 ypg) and eighth in third-down defense (39.3 percent conversions).

Penn State averages 256.7 rush yards a game and converts third downs at a 52.7 percent clip. Both numbers lead the Big Ten.

"They can't win if they can't score, and that's something that we need to take very seriously, look at and put it on our shoulders," Newkirk said. "If you dominate on the line of scrimmage, usually you're doing pretty good as a unit. That's on us. That's our job. That's what we do."