Armed with a 21-point lead and an attacking defense, Wisconsin appeared to be well on its way to at least the Rose Bowl, if not the College Football Playoff.
But Penn State is well known for its second-half comebacks, and as the Badgers found out, the Nittany Lions roared back to a 38-31 victory in the Big Ten championship game Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin (10-3) now likely is headed to the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl as the league runner-up. Penn State (11-2) will play in either the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff.
Here’s what we learned Saturday night:
5 key things we learned Saturday
- Wisconsin’s pass defense was exposed viciously by athletic and taller Penn State wide receivers. All of the Nittany Lions’ primary receivers stand taller than 6-foot-1. Every one of Wisconsin’s cornerbacks are 6-foot or shorter. Many of Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley’s passes were thrown up for grabs, and the receivers used their size advantage to come down with the ball. Saeed Blacknall had 6 catches for 155 yards and DaeSean Hamilton had 8 catches for 118 yards
- The Badgers need more from their wide receivers. Jazz Peavy (4 catches for 53 yards) was the only Wisconsin receiver with a catch. Part of it was by design — Wisconsin ran 49 times and passed 21 — but the Badgers needed more open routes.
- We thought the game’s biggest play took place midway through the second quarter. Penn State facing third-and-1 at its 31, the center snapped the ball over the head of McSorley. As the ball rolled to the 12-yard line, Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly scooped it up and ran in for a touchdown to put the Badgers up 21-7. Penn State had created some momentum before that play, but the defensive touchdown completely changed the game’s tone. Wisconsin then stretched it to a 28-7 lead after Penn State failed to convert a fourth-and-2 at its 42.
- Redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw has become a nice find as the No. 2 running back. He rushed 45 times in Wisconsin’s final four regular-season games and he provided a nice change of pace with 15 carries for 62 yards.
- When cornerback Derrick Tindal left the game with an arm injury, he took the Badgers’ pass defense with him. In the third quarter alone, the Nittany Lions completed all five pass attempts for 146 yards and a touchdown. Tindal, a junior, has started 19 games and played in 37 games. He had three interceptions and 11 pass breakups entering the game.
With 58 seconds left in the first half, McSorley connected with receiver Saeed Blacknall on a 40-yard touchdown. The Badgers had led 28-7 before that play and had forced the Nittany Lions to storm up the field. That play gave Penn State momentum, which obviously carried over to the second half.
Can Corey Clement do a better job of taking care of the ball? Twice he put the ball on the turf but lucked out each time when his teammates recovered. One was on a second-quarter scoring drive. The other was on a missed field goal drive.
Could Bart Houston step up as the main man behind center? Well, he answered that in the first half by completing 6 of 10 passes for 66 yards. The yardage sounds pedestrian, but the impact was vital. Houston completed four of his six third-down passes to four different receivers, all of which went for first downs. His 24-yard strike to Peavy on third-and-12 set up the Badgers’ first touchdown. Late in the first half, Houston’s 6-yard strike to tight end Kyle Penniston on third-and-4 ensured Wisconsin could run out the clock until halftime. Houston finished 16 of 21 passing for 174 yards.
Wisconsin’s seniors have 40 wins in their career, tied for the most in school history. The previous high of 40 was set by the class of 2007.
What it means
Wisconsin lost a chance to help the Big Ten West division gain some respect from its higher-profile counterpart. Since the league instituted geographical divisions in 2014, the East has won all three meetings. True, the last two came down to the final minute, but the West needs to win a title before it earns some equality in the public eye.