All season, Penn State has prided itself on being a second-half team. But the No. 7 Nittany Lions’ never-say-die attitude was never been more apparent than in the final 30 minutes of their 38-31 victory against No. 6 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Despite heading to halftime facing a 28-14 deficit, Penn State (11-2) made a last-ditch effort at staking its claim to a spot in the College Football Playoff, throttling the Badgers (10-3) in the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, outscoring them 24-3 after intermission. At the very least, the Nittany Lions are in line for a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Five things we learned
1. Bark and bite: Penn State star RB Saquon Barkley played on Saturday night, but he clearly wasn’t at full strength. It wasn’t an issue. After briefly leaving the game on the opening series, Barkley returned to total 103 total yards from scrimmage and 2 scores, including the game’s go-ahead touchdown on an 18-yard wheel route at the start of the fourth quarter. Even when he wasn’t at full strength, Barkley showed why he’s the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year this season.
2. Penn State’s recent success is real: The Nittany Lions are now on a 9-game winning streak, a streak that includes the win Saturday night and that 24-21 win against then-No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 22. Although its previous five opponents combined to possess a 22-38 record on the season, it’s clear Penn State’s success this season hasn’t just been the result of a favorable schedule. The Nittany Lions now lay claim to a pair of top-10 wins.
3. James Franklin is the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year: Franklin still makes some decisions that make you scratch your head — such as going for it on fourth down in consecutive series in the second quarter (failing both times, once on his side of the field). But the third-year Nittany Lions head coach put together a heckuva game plan. With Barkley clearly hobbled, Franklin relied primarily on a downfield passing attack and was rewarded with a 384-174 advantage through the air.
4. Mike Gesicki is a freak: OK, so maybe we didn’t just learn this. But it’s still a fun excuse to watch this play.
5. Trace McSorley is a gamer: Despite not having a fully healthy Barkley aiding his efforts, Penn State’s quarterback turned in one of the best showings of his career, completing 22 of his 31 attempts for 384 yards and 4 touchdowns against Wisconsin’s seventh-ranked defense. Oh, and he took down some impressive Penn State records in the process. Of all the reasons the Nittany Lions were able to overcome their 3-touchdown deficit — they trailed 28-7 with less than a minute to play in the first half — McSorley may be the biggest one.
Question answered for Penn State
Penn State probably isn’t going to the College Football Playoff — and that’s OK. The Rose Bowl is hardly a consolation prize for a program that has been through as much as has Penn State from a sanctions standpoint the past four years. At the very least, the Nittany Lions proved this much on Saturday: They belong in the conversation of college football’s top teams in 2016.
Questions looming for Penn State
So just how good is this team? The Nittany Lions’ looming bowl game is all we have left to find out. With McSorley and Barkley set to return to Happy Valley in 2017, a big bowl win will send the Nittany Lions into the offseason with no shortage of momentum — both in their locker room and on the recruiting trail.
McSorley’s 384 passing yards are a new Big Ten Championship Game record, passing Connor Cook’s previous mark of 304. Considering McSorley is only a redshirt sophomore, it’s safe to say the quarterback position is in good hands in Happy Valley. McSorley will enter 2017 as one of the best players in the Big Ten at his position.
What it means
Despite its impressive nature, it’s unlikely Penn State’s latest win did much to change the selection committee’s mind when it comes to its playoff candidacy. But the Nittany Lions do possess a pair of top-10 wins this season, a conference championship in the toughest league in college football, and a head-to-head win against the nation’s No. 2 team. If Franklin is going to campaign, he certainly has a case to present. Nevertheless, it appears Pasadena for a date with USC is Penn State’s most probable New Year’s destination.