Written by Erik Slaby
Indianapolis, IN - On chilly evening here at Lucas Oil Stadium, the nationally 8th ranked Penn State University Nittany Lions came back from being down 21 points, to defeat the 6th ranked University of Wisconsin Badgers, to become Big Ten Champions. This is their first B1G championship since 2008. It was a close, thrilling game between both teams but midway through the second quarter, it did not look like it would turnout that way.
At the 3:25 mark of the second quarter, Wisconsin was leading Penn State 28-7. On fourth down, at midfield, linebacker T.J. Watt just sacked Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who then proceeded to fumble the ball and it was recovered by Watt. In addition, the previous two drives for Penn State ended in a turnover on downs and a fumble on a high snap, deep in their own territory that was recovered by Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, who returned it 12 yards for a touchdown.
It seemed like the Badgers were going to pour it on from that point. After the turnover created by Watt, the Penn State defense stepped up against the Wisconsin offense and forced them to punt. It was only the second punt of the night for Wisconsin at that point. This defensive stop, combined with the fact that Wisconsin had favorable field position to start that drive, seemed to spark something on the Penn State sideline.
The Penn State offense got the ball back with 2:25 left in the second quarter and they went on an eight play, 90 yard drive that resulted in a 40 yard touchdown pass from McSorley to wide receiver Saeed Blacknall. If the previous stop by the defense managed to spark something on the sideline, then the touchdown drive lit a fire and gave Penn State some momentum heading into the half. Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki spoke about that feeling after the game.
“I don’t know if it’s great for us, but we honestly believe we’re a second-half team,” Gesicki stated. “So to get that touchdown before halftime, we went into halftime like we were winning the game. Like we knew that we were going to come out in the second half and make some adjustments and then go out and play the way we did in the second half.”
In the third quarter, Wisconsin started with the ball. Galvanized by their belief in being a second-half team and the touchdown late in the second quarter, the Penn State defense forced Wisconsin to attempt a 48 yard field goal that kicker Andrew Endicott missed, wide right. On the very next play, with the ball at their own 30 yard line, McSorley launched a deep, beautiful, 70 yard touchdown pass to Blacknall. From that point on, Penn State was on fire.
The Penn State defense forced another Wisconsin punt on the next drive and McSorley and star running back Saquon Barkley led the team on a scoring drive. Penn State went on an eight play drive that spanned 63 yards and ended in a one yard touchdown run by Barkley. This score tied the game at 28 points.
On the very next drive from Wisconsin, quarterback Bart Houston and running back Corey Clement led the team down the field to the Penn State 10 yard line. It looked like they would be able to score but Houston missed tight end Troy Fumagalli, who was wide open and would’ve scored, on a poor throw. One play later, Wisconsin was forced to kick field goal, which increased their lead to 31-28.
Penn State was able to get two big passing touchdowns in the fourth quarter from McSorley to Barkley, and wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton to increase their lead to 38-31 over Wisconsin. The defense stepped up as well. Wisconsin was on the Penn State 24 yard line facing fourth down and one, and if they converted that, there was about a minute left on the clock, leaving plenty of time for them score. Clement ran the ball to the right side of the line and the Penn State defense was there to meet him, stopping him short of the first down marker.
Penn State was led offensively by McSorley who was deadly for most of the night. In the second half, he only had one incomplete pass, passed for 211 yards and two touchdowns. For the game, he completed 22 of 31 passes, for 384 yards and four touchdowns. His passing yardage and touchdown set Big Ten Championship game records. As a result of his performance, he was named the Grange-Griffin Most Valuable Player of the game. Penn State head coach James Franklin spoke after the game about McSorley’s performance as well as the rest of the offense.
“Trace has been dynamic all year long. I’m really proud of him, you know, his attitude, his demeanor, the type of teammate he is, the type of leader is,” Franklin said. He also added that, “he made plays tonight. But the wideouts made plays for him. The wideouts made unbelievable plays for him, the tight ends made unbelievable plays for him.”
Wisconsin was led offensively by their rushing attack, which rushed for a combined 241 yards against the Penn State defense. Clement led the way with 21 carries, for 166 yards and one touchdown, while fellow running back Bradrick Shaw added 70 yards on the ground and Dare Ogunbowale ran for a touchdown.
Houston led the Badgers in passing, completing 16 of 21 passes for 174 yards. There were points in the game where it seemed like Wisconsin should’ve replaced Houston with quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who has been the starter for the majority of the season but has been dealing with an injury. Hornibrook did dress for the game, but did not see the field. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst was asked after the game if there was any thought to putting him in, to which Chryst stated, no, didn’t think about that.”
With this win, Penn State has placed themselves in the playoff conversation but it may be difficult for them to be ranked in the top four as every team in the top four that played this week, outside of Ohio State, did what they were supposed to do and won. Coach Franklin spoke after the game about being included in the conversation for the playoff.
“Every time I turn on the TV or read an article, people said this year the Big Ten Conference was by far the strongest conference in college football,” Franklin said. “I’ve heard that over and over again. We just won the Big Ten Conference championship. I’ve also heard for the last couple years that you have the ability to overcome early setbacks. And we did that as well. So I think we can make a great case for ourselves. We’re going to be a part of that conversation.”
In the end, there is a slim chance that Penn State will make the College Football Playoff but if they do not, they will be playing in the Rose Bowl. It has not yet been determined who Wisconsin will be playing in their bowl game, or what bowl game. This Big Ten Conference Championship game was a great, close game, with lots of drama and it will be remembered for years to come. Especially to Penn State.
Written by Erik Slaby
This Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, the nationally 6th ranked University of Wisconsin Badgers (10-2), led by second-year head coach Paul Chryst, face off against the 8th ranked Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions (10-2), led by third-year James Franklin, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in the Big Ten Championship game.
Wisconsin has been a very good team all season. They’ve been led by their dominant defense and ball-control offense. Wisconsin is ranked 3rd in the country in total defense this season. Their offense is also ranked 1st in the country in time of possession. They average 35 minutes a game, controlling the football.
Offensively, Wisconsin is led by running back Corey Clement, who has rushed for over 1100 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. As a team, Wisconsin has rushed for 2,418 yards, outrushing their opponents by roughly 1200 yards, behind a powerful offensive line. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook leads the passing attack with eight touchdowns and 1,243 yards passing. Quarterback Bart Houston has also seen some playing time throughout the year and he has 912 yards passing and five touchdowns.
Defensively, Wisconsin has played very well this season, even in losses to Michigan and Ohio State. They have the 3rd ranked scoring defense and the 3rd ranked third down defense this season as well. Linebacker T.J. Edwards leads the team in tackles with 75 tackles, fellow linebacker T.J. Watt leads the team in sacks with 9.5 and defensive back Leo Musso leads the team in interceptions with five. In addition, the team as a whole, has 21 interceptions. These are all key players and factors that Penn State will have to watch out for.
Penn State has also been a very good team this year. After a 2-2 start and after a 49-10 blowout loss to Michigan, it looked like they may be in for a rough season. Penn State was able to right the ship and roll off eight straight wins. With the biggest win coming against 2nd ranked Ohio State. They became a very hot team after that point and scored at least 39 points in every game thereafter.
Throughout that winning streak, they were led offensively by their rushing attack. Running back Saquon Barkley has carried the football 228 times, for 1,219 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s also averaging a little over five yards per carry. Quarterback Trace McSorley has also been able to play a part in the running game as he has 372 yards rushing and six touchdowns this season.
Because of their success of their running game, Penn State’s passing attack has also been able to perform well. McSorley led the way passing for 2,976 yards, 21 touchdowns and only five interceptions. It can be very difficult to stop Penn State offensively, so if they are able to get off to a fast start and run the ball very well, it could open up their offense and make them more dangerous.
Penn State is ranked 20th in total defense this season. While their defense may not be as impressive as Wisconsin’s, they are more than capable of keeping a game close and coming up with a big stop, or turnover. Defensive back Marcus Allen leads the team in tackles with 90 on the season. Defensive linemen Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels are tied for the team lead in sacks with six apiece. The Penn State defense will have their hands full with Wisconsin’s rushing attack but they must still be aware that Wisconsin has the ability for a big play, or two in the passing game.
This game has major implications for both teams and the College Football Playoff. Right now, both Penn State and Wisconsin are on the outside looking in, with fellow Big Ten team Ohio State ranked 2nd and Michigan ranked 5th. Interestingly, both of those teams failed to get to the Big Ten title game, as Penn State defeated Ohio State earlier this year and Ohio State defeated Michigan last week. It’s very possible that the winner of this title game goes to the College Football Playoff but at the same time, it’s possible that the winner does not make it and Ohio State, or even Michigan does. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit spoke briefly about this situation this past week.
“I can’t wait to see how the committee handles the Big Ten champion, Penn State or Wisconsin, verse a Michigan, who’s already ahead of them. I’m just going to tell you this. If Washington losses and everybody else (wins) … my opinion, Michigan goes to four." If the situation Herbstreit laid out occurs, the winner of the Big Ten title game will be very disappointed and possibly upset with the rankings. But perhaps, the committee may select the Big Ten champion."
This will be a difficult game for both teams. Penn State has an underrated defense, while Wisconsin has a pretty dominant defense. Wisconsin loves to run the ball and let their offensive line take control, while Penn State wants to run the ball well and setup the passing game in the process. Wisconsin’s ability to control the clock will be key this game as both teams run the ball well. If clock becomes an issue for either team, it will be interesting to see if the passing offenses can respond. In the end, this will be a good game and it will be interesting to see what the implications of either team winning will be.