INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The storyline played out like pretty much every game had played out down the stretch for Penn State, and as it happened to be, for Wisconsin, too.
The Badgers had been a first-half team all season, a group that had outscored opponents, 171-79, before halftime this season.
The Nittany Lions, as much as head coach James Franklin has battled the perception, have been just as good a second-half club. They’ve outscored the opposition, 274-102, after the break.
Well, true to form in the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin claimed a three-touchdown lead on seemingly helpless Penn State. And as they played deep into Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Nittany Lions showed it wasn’t enough.
Quarterback Trace McSorley completed two deep touchdown passes to receiver Saeed Blacknall — one before the half, the second on Penn State’s first drive after — and running back Saquon Barkley scored a pair of touchdowns after that, propelling the Nittany Lions to a 38-31 comeback win over Wisconsin.
“Trust the system. Trust the game plan,” said McSorley, who was named the game’s most valuable player after throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns, both game records. “(I was) just trying to take what the defense gave me and trust (our) defense. Everything came together, and we were able to carry in through the rest of the game.”
Penn State scored on all four of its second half possessions until it ran out the clock in the final minute, in addition to the 40-yard strike to Blacknall before the half. But Penn State’s biggest play came on defense.
Facing fourth-and-1 from the Penn State 24, Wisconsin running back Corey Clement took a handoff to the right side. But the senior who ran for 164 yards didn’t get the 165th that he needed, dropped half a yard short of the line to gain by Penn State cornerback Grant Haley.
“They ran the ball really well tonight,” Haley said. “But there was an opportunity where they ran a counter earlier, and they split it for a touchdown. I saw them set the edge, and that triggered it. I wrapped him up pretty well, and Marcus (Allen) helped finish him off.”
Things could not have looked worse for the upstart Nittany Lions for the first 20 minutes of the game. The Badgers dominated the game in the trenches, opening big holes offensively for star running back Corey Clement and bringing consistent pressure against McSorley. The Badgers outgained Penn State 225 yards to 112 on the way to building a 28-7 lead. They beat Penn State with big plays — a 67-yard scoring run by Clement on that counter Haley mentioned. They beat them by being more opportunistic — linebacker Ryan Connelly picked up a bad snap from center Brian Gaia and returned it 12 yards for a score.
With 2:25 left in the first half, Penn State had shown little to prove it could compete with the Badgers.
Then, as it so often has for this team this season, things changed in an instant.
On a first-and-10 with just more than 1:00 to go in the half, McSorley threw a strike toward Blacknall on the left sideline. Wisconsin cornerback Lubern Figaro tried to make a tackle on Blacknall or a play on the ball, but missed, allowing the junior to turn and jog into the end zone, cutting the Wisconsin lead in half.
That was the beginning of one of McSorley’s hottest stretches of the season.
After Wisconsin kicker Andrew Endicott missed a 48-yard field goal attempt wide to the right on its opening drive after halftime, McSorley — again, under pressure — lofted a high, arching pass toward open space into the middle of the Lucas Oil Stadium field. Blacknall sprinted from the left, settled under the ball, caught it and ran into the end zone for a momentum-swinging score, even though Penn State still trailed, 28-21.
Another Wisconsin punt gave Penn State the ball on its 37, but Barkley sprinted for 16 yards around right end on first down, then McSorley completed passes of 14 yards to Chris Godwin and 17 to Mike Gesicki, then later found DaeSean Hamilton inside the 5 to set up a 1-yard scoring run by Barkley to tie it.
Wisconsin took a 31-28 lead on a field goal by Andrew Endicott, but Penn State answered in the fourth quarter on an 18-yard strike from McSorley to Barkley with 13:41 to go before forcing yet another Wisconsin punt.
Penn State scored on each of its first four drives of the second half, pushing its lead to 38-31 on a 25-yard field goal by Tyler Davis. But the Nittany Lions defense, which held the Badgers to just three second half points, had one more stop in them.
Badgers quarterback Bart Houston completed passes to Jazz Peavy and Dare Ogunbawale, then found Clement for another first down into Penn State territory. But once the Badgers went back to the ground, the Penn State defensive line proved up to the task of stopping the run.
Clement gained 4 yards on first down from the Lions’ 29, but linebacker Manny Bowen engulfed Bradrick Shaw for no gain on second down, and Houston’s 5-yard pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli on third down fell a yard short of the marker. That’s when Haley stopped Clement’s fourth-down charge to essentially seal the win.
“They did a good job against the run and they made a lot of plays down the field,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “We didn’t do enough to make McSorley uncomfortable. It’s football, and you have to make plays.
“We made some, but we didn’t make enough.”
Now, Penn State will wait until this afternoon, when its bowl destination is decided, one way or another, by the College Football Playoff committee.
Penn State earned a trip to the Rose Bowl if it doesn’t finish in the CFP’s top four. But Penn State is lobbying for something even bigger.
“What I do know is, we just won the toughest conference in college football,” Franklin said. “We’ve won nine straight. They say you are allowed to overcome setbacks, and we’ve done that. It’s up to you, committee.
“Let’s stop talking about (starting) 2-2, and let’s start talking about the last nine games.”