Penn State beat Wisconsin in a wild Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday in Indianapolis, 38-31. The Nittany Lions stacked up Wisconsin running back Corey Clement on a fourth-and-1 with a minute to play, effectively clinching the game and the conference. They only had to run out the clock afterward, and they did.
The man who got to Clement first? Penn State defensive back Grant Haley, whose blocked kick return against Ohio State on Oct. 22 turned out to decide the Big Ten East.
In victory, the Nittany Lions made a strong closing argument to the College Football Playoff committee. They should at least get to No. 5 in the ranking, but whether they get into the four-team field could depend on the committee’s view of Clemson’s 42-35 win against Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. The likeliest outcome is that Clemson gets in and Penn State doesn’t. Anything else would be pretty surprising.
Penn State can’t do worse than the Rose Bowl, and the season’s a smashing success no matter what. But Penn State’s Playoff fate won’t be known until Sunday afternoon, and not getting into the field would make this run bittersweet. It just wouldn’t make it any less impressive.
Maybe this game wasn’t a classic, but it was at least in the neighborhood.
Wisconsin took a 28-7 first-half lead, with Penn State sometimes looking spectacularly out of sorts. But the Nittany Lions are a through-and-through second-half team, and they charged back. A touchdown right before the half gave way to two more right after it, knotting the game at 28. Then the see-saw started to bounce.
Wisconsin re-took the lead with an Andrew Endicott field goal in the last minute of the third quarter. Trace McSorley responded with a wheel route touchdown pass to Saquon Barkley just after the start of the fourth, giving Penn State its first lead of the night, 35-31. The Lions made it 38-31 on a field goal, then got the stop to seal it.
The win completes a shocking, incredible run through the Big Ten for James Franklin’s Nittany Lions. Penn State was widely expected to be just so-so in 2016, and when the Nitts lost at Michigan, 49-10, to fall to 2-2 in September, even that seemed generous. But Penn State didn’t lose again, high-pointing with a shocking win against Ohio State and clinching the Big Ten East on the regular season’s last day.
In defeat, not everything is lost for Wisconsin. It’s a disappointment, definitely, but the Badgers are still probably bound for a New Year’s Six bowl – likely the Cotton or the Orange. They navigated a brutal schedule and came out of it looking stronger than they had yet under Paul Chryst, and their defense will make them a threat in whichever major bowl offers them a bid.
But the story here is Penn State. The Nittany Lions did something the vast majority of the college football world didn’t think they could do, and they did it in style.
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