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Long odds against Nittany Lions

| Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, 11:18 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg passes against Nebraska at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 23, 2013, in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State tight end Jesse James stiff-arms Nebraska safety Corey Cooper on his way to the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in University Park.

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has shown he isn't afraid to use the nobody-believes-in-us card to motivate his team.

That's good because perhaps never in the program's history have fewer believed in the Nittany Lions' chances of winning a game.

If the betting public is to be believed, that is.

Penn State (6-5, 3-4 Big Ten) was a consensus 24 12-point underdog 36 hours prior to the 3:30 Saturday kickoff for its game at Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1). According to research via covers.com, that is the biggest point spread the Lions have faced since at least 1985.

Multiple employees of Las Vegas sportsbooks reached by the Tribune-Review said they believed it was the most points the Lions were ever getting for a game. None could verify it with certainty; official records aren't kept.

Using covers.com as the basis for comparison, Penn State isn't listed as any more than a 19 12-point underdog (at Ohio State in 2010) for a game dating to the 1985 season.

“I'm aware that we're probably an underdog,” O'Brien said. “But I didn't know it was (that big). No, that wouldn't (bother the team). Now if somebody from Wisconsin came out and said we're going to beat these guys by 24 points, then maybe we'd use that. But certainly not Vegas.”

Before Saturday, only 13 times since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993 had the Lions been as much as an 11-point underdog. That includes a 15-point spread for a game last month at then-No. 4 Ohio State. Two of the three other biggest lines against Penn State over the past 29 seasons were against No. 1-ranked teams: The 1988 season against Notre Dame (17 points) and the 2006 Big Ten opener at No. 1 Ohio State (16 12).

Wisconsin is ranked 14th.

“Oddsmakers are forced to set a high line because Wisconsin has been a point spread-covering machine this season,” covers.com's Steve Merril said.

The Badgers are 9-1-1 against the spread, and coach Gary Andersen is 20-2-2 against the spread the past two seasons (he was at Utah State in 2012).

The Badgers' two defeats came by a total of nine points. The average margin of victory in their nine wins is 29.7 points.

“I don't really look at that stuff, and I can't tell you much about it,” Penn State tight end Jesse James said of being a big underdog.

Wisconsin is fifth nationally in scoring defense (13.4 points/game) and second in the Big Ten in scoring offense (36.8). The Badgers are sixth among 123 FBS teams in total defense (278.5 yards/game) and 18th in total offense (489.3).

Wisconsin has won 27 of its past 29 home games. Penn State's most recent trip to Camp Randall Stadium was a 45-7 loss in 2011.

“Penn State … is a very sound, well-coached football team,” Andersen said. “They've played very hard in every game, and they'll continue to play very hard.”

No matter the odds.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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