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Grading The Nittany Lions’ Season-Ending Upset Victory Over Wisconsin

The Nittany Lions ended the season on a high note once again, topping the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers on the road 31-24. The win clinched another winning season at 7-5 for Bill O’Brien in his second year in Happy Valley. Nobody — including our staff here at Onward State — expected or predicted an upset victory for the Nittany Lions in Madison on Saturday. After taking some time to digest what went down yesterday afternoon, we handed out some grades to the team for the last time this year:

Offense — A

Sure, 31 points and 465 yards of offense isn’t the best offensive performance of the year for Penn State, but it’s important to take into account who’s on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The Wisconsin Badgers entered Saturday’s matchup allowing just 13.4 points per game, the fifth best average in the nation. They were strong on all fronts, defending the pass extremely well and limiting run games on the line.

It certainly looked as though the Badgers’ coaching staff out-coached itself on both sides of the ball, but give credit to Bill O’Brien, Christian Hackenberg, and everyone else involved in the Penn State offense for essentially dominating one of the country’s stronger defensive units. Christian Hackenberg had the best game of his young career, throwing for four touchdowns and completing 70 percent of his passes. Zach Zwinak got the bulk of the carries in the game, rushing 22 times for 115 yards.

The 31 points and 465 yards were the second most points and yards that Wisconsin has allowed this season. In fact, Penn State gained more yards on the Badger defense than Ohio State did when the two teams played earlier this year.

The offense didn’t turn the ball over once, correcting an issue that existed all season long. The only reason that the unit gets an A instead of an A+ is because the offensive line was flagged eight times for false start penalties. Other than that one minor blemish, the Penn State offense really hit its stride on Saturday against the Badgers.

Defense — A-

I can’t give the defense a perfect grade either, mainly because they gave up 24 points, but there was nothing at all wrong with how the unit played against the Badgers. Up front, Penn State was able to clog the rushing lanes all game against a team that lives and dies by the run, averaging nearly 300 yards per game on the ground. The Nittany Lions held the Badgers to just 120 rushing yards, so hats off to the front seven for some great gap integrity and a solid job reading the runs all game long.

As for the pass defense, something that had been one of Penn State’s biggest weaknesses early in the season, it turned out to be somewhat of a strength by the end. It’s never great to allow 339 passing yards, but Wisconsin QB Joel Stave did throw 53 times in the game, mainly for dinks and dunks, completing just 29 of those passes for a 54.7 completion percentage. In even better news, the Nittany Lions picked off Stave three times, once off a tipped ball, once off a bad pass, and once off of a strip-sack.

All in all, it was good to see John Butler’s unit overcome some of the struggles it dealt with earlier the season and finish relatively strong over the last few weeks.

Special Teams — C-

The lone bright spot of the game for the special teams unit was a 36-yard kickoff return by Geno Lewis, one of the few strong kickoff returns that the team has had all season. Sam Ficken was 1-for-3 on field goals, missing one late in the fourth quarter that would have put the game away. Alex Butterworth had an alright game but certainly wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t a great day for special teams, but it wasn’t necessarily bad either and it didn’t have a large impact on the game as a whole.

Coaching — A+

This might be the first time this season that there are no questionable coaching decisions, whether it be game plans, play-calling, or scheming, that comes to mind. Bill O’Brien called a hell of a game, taking advantage of wide receiver matchups and making a risky decision by focusing on the pass against a team that defends it well. After using a ground-and-pound approach for much of the last few weeks, O’Brien’s game plan seemed to have caught Wisconsin off guard and they never rebounded, struggling to stop Hackenberg all game long.

As for Butler, it certainly seemed like he coached his best game of the season on Saturday. The Badgers made some questionable decisions on offense, mainly the choice to throw the ball 25 more times than running the ball, straying from their bread and butter. Regardless, Butler’s defense was prepared to pounce on Stave. He didn’t overuse the blitz as he has in some weeks, instead taking advantage of matchups at the line that seemed to be in Penn State’s favor, namely Anthony Zettel dominating Wisconsin’s left tackle.

It’s hard to find anything negative to say about the coaching in what was Penn State’s most impressive win of the season against one of the best opponents of the season. The future is certainly bright for this Nittany Lions team.

About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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