Hungry for a statement win and aware they were considered heavy underdogs, the Penn State Nittany Lions pounced on the mistakes.
Strong-armed freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns—showing the poise and touch of a veteran— and the Nittany Lions defense came up clutch on the road to upset the 14th-ranked Badgers 31-24 on Saturday.
Wisconsin entered the day on the cusp of eligibility for an at-large berth in the Bowl Championship Series game.
Say goodbye to the BCS, Badgers.
"That's not going to happen and so we'll move forward. Such is life," coach Gary Andersen said. "The way we played today and the way I coached them, obviously, we don't deserve to have that opportunity."
A team that had improved each week this season played its worst game of the year. Way too many mistakes and mental blunders to overcome.
Joel Stave was 29 of 53 for 339 yards and three touchdowns, but had three second-half interceptions for Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2, Big Ten). Melvin Gordon had 91 yards on 13 carries, but the Badgers' vaunted rushing attack really was never much of a factor.
The Nittany Lions (7-5, 4-4) secured a statement win and capitalized on the interceptions, turning one into a 59-yard touchdown pass to Eugene Lewis to make it 31-14 with 13 minutes to go.
The Badgers scored 10 points in a span of 1:25 of the fourth quarter, capped by a 48-yard field goal by Jack Russell with 4:13 left to get within a score. Penn State missed a field goal with 31 seconds left to give the Badgers one more chance.
But a Hail Mary attempt by Stave was intercepted by Ryan Keiser in the end zone with 1 second left.
"It's tough. It's probably the hardest one I've ever been a part of, anytime in my life, really," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "We wanted to win so bad for so many reasons, and it wasn't to be."
Give much of the credit to Hackenberg. Wisconsin was giving up just 176 yards passing a game all year, but Hackenberg beat that in the first half alone, going 13 of 16 for 221 yards and two touchdowns, the second coming to a wide-open Lewis from 3 yards.
"He really stepped up in a big way, and words can't describe how thankful I am to that guy," said offensive lineman and senior leader John Urschel about Hackenberg, who finished 21 of 30 for the afternoon.
The Badgers suffered a mental gaffe during that play, leaving Lewis uncovered on second-and-goal with 1:16 left in the half. Realizing the error, Andersen frantically ran down the sideline to call a timeout. But the officials either ignored or didn't see Andersen, who threw his visor down to the turf in a heated argument with two officials after the play.
It was just a sign of things to come.
Wisconsin wasn't ready for some looks that Penn State showed on offense, with players scrambling on and off the field just before Hackenberg snapped the ball. On one play, Wisconsin had just nine confused defenders but lucked out after a long pass for Allen Robinson deflected harmlessly off the back of safety Tanner McEvoy coverage in the third quarter.
The Nittany Lions didn't pass up other opportunities. A Wisconsin defense that hadn't allowed a play longer than 51 yards entering Saturday allowed an astounding four plays of at least 52 to Penn State.
A high pass from Stave off the fingertips of Jared Abbrederis was picked off by Trevor Williams, who returned it 33 yards to the Penn State 38. Three plays later, Hackenberg let go a deep pass just before absorbing a hit that landed in the arms of a streaking Lewis over double coverage for a touchdown and 31-14 lead in the fourth.
In the third quarter, defensive lineman C.J. Olaniyan returned an interception 33 yards to the Wisconsin 19 to set up a 28-yard field goal by Ficken.
"I can't sit back and say we had a bad week of practice, can't sit back and say I didn't feel like we were prepared," Andersen said about his team's flubs. "I'm going to say it again, I give a lot of credit to Penn State."
Wisconsin didn't record a sack, either. Borland finished with 10 tackles in his last home game, while fellow senior Jared Abbrederis had 12 catches for 135 yards.
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