INDIANAPOLIS — At halftime, it was so simple.
At worst, Pasadena. At best, playoff nirvana.
Either way, it smelled of Disneyland.
Now it’s a mystery.
Like what happened to Wisconsin’s first-half lead in the 2016 Big Ten championship game. Like what happened to the Badgers’ secondary once cornerback Derrick Tindal came up gimpy.
Like what happened when Penn State wideout Saeed Blacknall saw daylight and couldn’t stop running to it.
Like Nittany Lions 38, Badgers 31.
An invite to the Orange Bowl against an ACC dance partner? Possibly.
A bid to the Cotton Bowl against scrappy Western Michigan? Maybe.
It’s just … it’s just …
“It’s hard to believe,” Badgers safety D’Cota Dixon said as the Big Ten West champs led a 28-14 halftime lead slip away. “Even though we already lost, again, I feel like … I don’t believe it. I still don’t believe it.”
After what this defense had done, time and again, who could believe Saturday night? Who could believe one that got away? And got away so, so, so, quickly?
A two-touchdown lead after the second quarter, faded in an instant — the way breath fades from a mirror.
The Badgers (10-3) can’t do anything about it now. Their cards are on the table, and those losses to Penn State, to Ohio State and to Michigan were in the hand already dealt.
Wisconsin pulled up three of a kind against the Lions (11-2).
They needed a straight flush to make a smidgen of a case to the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Although at halftime, the campaigning on social media was already underway in earnest:
Man, I know it’s only a half but if the second half goes somewhat similar how can you leave this badger team out of the playoffs?!
— Jared Abbrederis (@abbrecadabra) December 4, 2016
Because for coach Paul Chryst and company, things couldn’t have opened any better — the Badgers brought the heat and forced a three-and-out on Penn State’s first drive of the evening, then got the ball back and drove 81 yards for a touchdown on 14 plays, all but two of them runs, grinding eight minutes off the clock in the process.
By the time the Lions got the ball back, there was only 5:23 left in the first period and a mostly pro-Penn State crowd in Indy, a wall of white shirts, started shifting uncomfortably across thousands of seats.
A Corey Clement 67-yard touchdown run pushed the lead to 14-0 before Penn State counterpunched with a 33-yard rainbow to big tight end Mike Gesicki to get on the board.
But the expected gave way to the surreal with 9:42 left in the half and the Lions lined up in the shotgun on third and 1 at their own 31. The ensuing snap was launched over the head of quarterback Trace McSorley, who gave chase for 19 yards before Badgers linebacker Ryan Connelly led a convoy of onrushing defenders, snatching the ball and taking it 12 more yards the other way for a scoop-and-score, pushing the Wisconsin cushion to 20-7.
Down two touchdowns, Penn State on its next drive faced a fourth-and-2 at its own 42. Again, the Lions stayed shotgun and again, McSorley was under pressure, although at least the snap was clean. The quarterback rolled right and chucked a prayer wide of his intended target. The Badgers took over and punched it in on five plays — four of them runs, the last a 7-yard score up the right boundary by Dare Ogunbowale to push the Badgers up three scores.
It wasn’t enough. When you start to feel it the way McSorley (384 passing yards, four touchdowns) can with time and a decent pocket, it never is.
The Nittany Lions went into the weekend ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in points after halftime (22.8). Once they found a willing target to pick on in Badgers cornerback Lubern Figaro, subbing for the injured Tindal, you knew they weren’t going to go quietly into the Indiana night. And they didn’t.