Less than two minutes of game time had elapsed in the first quarter, and Penn State already found itself in an unfamiliar situation.
For only the second time all season, the Nittany Lions allowed points before scoring some of their own, and for the first time this year, they allowed a touchdown on the opening drive as Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips found running back Melvin Gordon, who scampered down the right sideline for a 57-yard touchdown catch and run.
It was unfamiliar territory for the Nittany Lions, and it remained that way for a decent portion of the game. They bounced back on their first offensive possession with a 78-yard touchdown drive that featured a heavy dose of Zach Zwinak including a 3-yard touchdown run up the middle to cap it off, but the Badgers would once again take the lead less than three minutes later when Montee Ball got loose down the right sideline for a 17-yard touchdown.
From there, things began to settle down, but they were still not exactly normal. For only the second time all season, the Nittany Lions went to the locker room after thirty minutes of play, trailing.
The second half was a different story. A confident Sam Ficken made two field goals on the first three drives to cut the Badgers’ lead to one, and on the fourth drive, Matt McGloin found Jesse James open down the left sideline on a fourth down pass that resulted in a 41-yard touchdown. After Zwinak made the two-point conversion successful with a run up the middle, the Blue and White held a 21-14 lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
It looked as if this is how the season would conclude. The home team had momentum, and the Badgers could do little through the air, but if the last year has been any lesson, things are rarely easy and never predictable. With 18 seconds remaining, Phillips found wide receiver Jeff Duckworth in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown. The extra point by kicker Kyle French would send the game to overtime, momentarily silencing a frigid but electric Beaver Stadium.
The silence would not last long. The Nittany Lions got the ball first and relied on Ficken to connect on a 36-yard field goal after only gaining 6 yards on three plays. Trotting Ficken out there in this situation might have been unthinkable one month ago, but after making nine in a row, Bill O’Brien trusted him to hit the most important kick of the season. Ficken came through, and when French missed wide left on a 44-yard attempt, the celebration was on.
To emerge victorious, the Nittany Lions relied on the leadership of their senior class along with some unexpected heroes including the much maligned Ficken and Jake Fagnano, who made his first career interception.
“Inside the walls of Lasch, we believed in him [Ficken],” said O’Brien after the game. The head coach, who concluded his first season in Happy Valley with an 8-4 record would praise all of the seniors after the emotional win, but one player’s performance stood out today.
To Jordan Hill, the unfamiliar feeling of trailing early on was nothing to worry about. In fact, Hill could relate to it pretty well.
“This game told our whole story in game form of what we have been through since last November,” said the candid defensive tackle who recorded 12 tackles, two sacks, and three tackles for loss.
Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti have received most of the accolades and attention this season, but there is a legitimate case to be made that Hill might be the best player on the Nittany Lions defense. Hill does not very much care for those types of discussions.
“I didn’t pay any attention to my stats today. The only thing that was going through my mind was that I kept telling myself there was no way we were losing this game,” explained Hill.
It was an emotional Senior Day for Hill who said he played better because his father was in attendance and immediately ran over to hug him when the game was over.
“I want to go down in history, the 2012 team. Not for our wins but for our character,” said Hill.
He might be able to have it both ways. After an 0-2 start, the Nittany Lions won eight of their final ten games, exceeding just about everyone’s expectations along the way.
The eighth and final victory might be the sweetest yet. After facing everything imaginable on and off the gridiron over the past year, the Nittany Lions faced a few more tests and survived.
Senior cornerback Stephon Morris, who, like Hill, came to State College in 2009 and referred to him as a big brother, was clear how he wants this senior class and the 2012 Nittany Lions to be remembered. “As fighters. We love this university. We’ll handle anything they throw at us.”
- Zach Zwinak set a new career high with 179 rushing yards.
- Zwinak reached 1000 rushing yards on the season while Allen Robinson finished with more than 1000 receiving yards.
- Sam Ficken tied a career high with 3 field goals made.
- The Nittany Lions played their first overtime game since the 2006 season and their first at Beaver Stadium since 2002.
- Alex Kenney had his most productive game in over two months with 3 receptions for 28 yards.
- The interception by Jake Fagnano was the first one thrown by Curt Phillips all season.
- Glenn Carson led the defense in tackles with 13.
- For the first time in his career, tight end Jesse James was the leading receiver with 90 yards.
- Gerald Hodges wore the jersey number 42 to honor Michael Mauti, and the entire team wore helmets with Mauti’s number on them.
- Announced attendance at Beaver Stadium was 93,505.