Replace one of the premier defensive coordinators in college football.

That was the challenge for Penn State’s Brent Pry and Wisconsin’s Justin Wilcox when the season started.

In 2014, Penn State’s Bob Shoop led the Nittany Lions to a B1G-leading defensive season in several defensive categories. It only culminated in a seven-win season, but that was more attributed to a faulty offensive line. Last year, Dave Aranda’s Badgers replaced PSU atop those leaderboards, helping propel Wisconsin to a 10-win year.

Last offseason, though, Shoop left the Nittany Mountain for the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and Aranda traded in that famous Wisconsin cheese for a Tiger Stadium-sized bowl of gumbo at LSU.

Both defenses were expected to experience setbacks. Wilcox had some moderate success at USC and it was unclear whether he could handle B1G offenses. Pry, on the other hand, while being on James Franklin’s staff for several years, had been the sole mind behind a defense.

And these were the results they were expected to replicate:

2015 averages Wisconsin (B1G rank) Penn State (B1G rank)
Pass yards allowed 173.2 (2nd) 173.5 (3rd)
Rush yards allowed 95.4 (1st) 151.0 (8th)
Total yards allowed 268.5 (1st) 324.5 (5th)
Turnovers forced (total) 21 (6th) 22 (5th)
Points allowed 13.7 (1st) 21.8 (7th)

Not an easy duty for either  coordinator.

Pry’s job was more complicated from the start.

As early as Penn State’s spring game, the defense looked out of sorts. It couldn’t contain Trace McSorley and gave up several big plays. Even with Saquon Barkley sidelined through the scrimmage, the offense was trudging down the field without any trouble.

Nov 5, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions safety Marcus Allen (2) gestures to the crowd during the third quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Iowa 41-14. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Those struggles trickled into the early portion of the season. The Nittany Lions, who had led several statistical categories in the B1G defensively just two years prior surrendered 42 points to Pitt and 49 to Michigan in a pair of losses. They had allowed 131 points in their first four games and saw the Panthers and the Wolverines rack up nearly 700 yards on the ground combined.

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Since that embarrassing 49-10 loss in Ann Arbor, Penn State’s defense has looked much more polished. It’s given up 30 or more points just once in the last eight outings, and its run defense has improved by more than 100 yards per game. In the upset win over Ohio State in Happy Valley, the Lions surrendered just 21 points in what was the Buckeyes second-lowest scoring outing of the season.

In the last eight games, Penn State has improved in nearly every statistical category:

Penn State (per game averages) First four games (2-2) Final eight games (8-0)
Pass yards allowed 173.7 213.9
Rush yards allowed 213.7 112.5
Total yards allowed 387.5 326.4
Turnovers forced 1.5 1.7
Points allowed 32.7 18.2

They’ve developed some playmakers, too.

Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels have developed into a forceful tandem on the front line. The combo have combined for 12 sacks on the year and 20 tackles for loss. Defensive back Marcus Allen had 22 tackles against Minnesota and Brandon Bell notched Defensive Player of the Week honors in the conference with 18 tackles last week against Michigan State.

Eight different players have recorded an interception for the Nittany Lions this season.

September seems so long ago. Pry has squared things up defensively and Penn State’s defense hasn’t encountered many issues since October hit.

Oct 15, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst greets linebacker T.J. Watt (42) during the fourth quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Camp Randall Stadium. Ohio State won 30-23. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin didn’t endure the same early-season struggles that Penn State dealt with.

From wire-to-wire, the Badgers have maintained their status as one of the top defenses in the country. What’s been most impressive, though, is how they’ve been so dominant even with such a daunting schedule.

With Vince Biegel, Conor Sheehy, Jack Cichy and Chikwe Obasih returning in the front seven and Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton anchoring the secondary, Wisconsin’s defense was expected to enjoy some success, even after Aranda’s departure. But Wilcox and his personnel were going to put to the test with games against LSU, Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska all on the schedule.

A16-14 win over LSU in the season-opener while forcing three turnovers was a pretty good start for the Badgers. Over the next few weeks, the Badgers held Michigan to 14 points and Ohio State needed overtime to pull out a 30-23 win in Madison. The two most-effective offenses in the B1G had been virtually silenced by an experienced group.

Iowa and Nebraska didn’t have much luck either.

The numbers may not look quite as impressive against ranked opponents compared with the team’s season averages, but considering the schedule, the Badgers defense looks even more unrelenting against some of their better opponents:

Wisconsin (per game) Season averages Average vs. AP Top 25 (five games)
Pass yards allowed 191.3 176.4
Rush yards allowed 100.8 135.2
Total yards allowed 292.0 311.6
Turnovers forced 2.1 1.4
Points allowed 13.6 16.8

Like Penn State, the Badgers have needed some unexpected guys to make a big impact this season. It’s been especially important in Madison because of the number of injuries Wisconsin has encountered this year.

On the first series against LSU, Chris Orr was injured and was ruled out for the remainder of the season. Linebacker Jack Cichy also sustained a season-ending injury against Iowa, seemingly depleting Wisconsin’s linebacker corps. T.J. Edwards and Vince Biegel, among others, have also sat out at times this year.


The growth of guys like T.J. Watt and D’Cota Dixon have been huge this season.

Watt ranks second in the B1G in sacks this season, recording 9.5. Dixon, who’s intercepted four passes this season, has recorded three of those in pivotal moments in games against LSU, Ohio State and Nebraska. He’s been one of the top secondary players in the B1G this year.

The Badgers have recorded 31 total sacks on the year and have picked off a conference-high 21 passes.

RELATED: Bill O’Brien Couldn’t be Prouder to See Penn State Thriving

So now, two of the B1G’s better defenses – two units expected to struggle with the loss of a premier defensive coordinator – are set to square off for a B1G title. And they both have similar tasks at hand.

Penn State needs to stop Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. For Wisconsin, it’s shutting down league-leader Saquon Barkley and containing Trace McSorley’s ability to make the big play. Certainly those aren’t the only keys to Saturday’s matchup, but it is an important storyline for two teams that weren’t suppose to be in this position.

And what about all those question marks that were floating around in State College and Madison?

Pry and Wilcox have straightened them out into exclamation points.