Sometimes they say that you should save the best for last. Against the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday afternoon in Madison, Penn State did just that, pulling off a 31-24 upset win in the final game of the season to finish 7-5.
For what seems like the first time all year, the Nittany Lions put together a complete game, succeeding on both sides of the ball against one of the best teams in the conference — the nation, even — to end the 2013 season on a high note with a shocking upset.
Christian Hackenberg saved his best for last too, almost certainly having his best performance of the year on Saturday. Hackenberg completed 21-of-30 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns. He was great all game long, throwing for a score in each quarter. Hackenberg was accurate from start to finish and spread the ball around, utilizing his tight ends and finding surprising options like Geno Lewis, who caught two touchdowns on the game.
It was a roller-coaster of a season for the Nittany Lions, but they were able to clinch a winning record for the second season of Bill O’Brien’s tenure as head coach with the win over the Badgers. From a four-overtime victory against then-undefeated Michigan to a blowout of a loss on the road against Ohio State, this team never established a real identity over the course of the season. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions proved that they are the same “bunch of fighters” that went 8-4 last year to shock the world.
Wisconsin entered Saturday’s game boasting the fifth-best defense and eighth-best rushing offense in the country. The Badgers were allowing just 13.4 points per game and running for an insane 297.8 yards a game. While the coaching staff is certainly partly to blame for poor play-calling, Penn State more than doubled the Badgers’ points-allowed average and held one of the best run games in the nation to a pedestrian 120 rushing yards. The Badgers allowed just 179 passing yards per game entering their matchup with Penn State, but Hackenberg burned them for nearly twice that number.
Equally impressive to Hackenberg’s dominant performance was that of the Penn State defense. Though Badgers quarterback Joel Stave threw for three touchdowns, the Nittany Lions picked him off three times — including once in the endzone to end the game — and held him to just 6.4 yards per attempt. As for the running backs, neither Melvin Gordon nor James White surpassed 100 yards — the duo combined for just 147 yards — even though the former had rushed for 1,375 yards and the later for 1,281 on the season before facing Penn State.
Penn State looked like the better team from the first drive of the game on, as Hackenberg connected with Adam Breneman for a 68-yard touchdown less than two minutes into the game. Wisconsin was able to take a lead by the middle of the second quarter, neutralizing the Nittany Lions offense and scoring on two passes from Stave, but the lead was short-lived.
Penn State drove for another touchdown near the end of the first half, finishing the drive with Lewis’ first score of the game to enter halftime tied up at 14-14. Lewis was uncovered on the play as Wisconsin had a lapse on defense and could not get the timeout called in time.
Penn State came out firing on all cylinders in the third quarter. Hackenberg connected with Jesse James for a seven-yard score, throwing over tight coverage and threading the needle to go up 21-14. Sam Ficken hit a field goal from 28 yards out a few minutes later to increase the lead to double digits. Hackenberg looked to put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter, firing an absolute bomb deep downfield for Lewis for a 59-yard score, but the Badgers weren’t going to go down without a fight.
Stave led a drive in the middle of the fourth quarter that ended with a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brian Wozniak. After holding off the Penn State offense and blocking an Alex Butterworth punt, Wisconsin was able to connect on a 48-yard field goal to come within a score, but that’s as close as they would get. Sam Ficken missed a field goal that would have put the game out of reach with 30 seconds to go, but the Badgers couldn’t pull off a miracle and the Nittany Lions finished the upset at 31-24.
“To be able to come in here on the road and send these guys out a winning note means a lot for Penn State University,” Bill O’Brien said. “I can tell you flat-out that they took offense to the point that they were 20-point underdogs. I thought that was ridiculous.”
The Nittany Lions used their underdog status as motivation, according to O’Brien, and the approach seemed to have paid off in large dividends. For the second season in a row, the team ended the year with a win over the Badgers, this time doing it on the road against a better Wisconsin team, proving to the world once again that Penn State football is alive and well.
- Allen Robinson had yet another great game, hauling in eight passes for 122 yards but failing to find the end zone. His longest reception went for 52 yards. Robinson finishes the season with 97 receptions for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns.
- Zach Zwinak just about took sole possession of the rushing duties, carrying the ball 22 times to Bill Belton’s three. Zwinak totaled 115 yards in the game, including a clutch 61-yard run on a third-and-long draw late in the fourth quarter to keep the clock ticking and keep the offensive drive alive. The 61-yard run was his longest of the season.
- Trevor Williams, C.J. Olaniyan, and Ryan Keiser each came up with interceptions in the game. Olaniyan’s looked to be a strip-sack fumble recovery, but was ruled a pick.
- Penn State held Wisconsin to its second-lowest point total of the season. The Badgers had recorded its 2nd-lowest point total last week in a 20-7 win over Minnesota.
- The Nittany Lions played spoiler for the Badgers, essentially ruining their chances at a BCS bowl. A team needs to be ranked in the Top 14 to be in consideration. Wisconsin entered Saturday’s game one spot shy of a Top 14 ranking and will almost certainly move down after losing to Penn State.