MADISON -- So much for any BCS talk.
Christian Hackenberg passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns as Penn State upset No. 14 Wisconsin, 31-24, to ruin Senior Day at Camp Randall and effectively eliminate any hopes of an at-large BCS bid for the Badgers.
Joel Stave completed 29 of his career-high 53 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns to lead Wisconsin, although he was picked off three times.
"It was very obvious [Penn State] was pretty well schooled up on how to attack us," Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said. "They got us on our toes a couple times on defense and we did not react well to that."
"I guess if I summed it up real simple: football becomes really hard to play when you can’t rush the passer consistently and you can’t protect the passer consistently."
Those were both areas the Badgers failed to execute against the Nittany Lions. The Penn State offensive line gave the true freshman Hackenberg all day to make his reads against the Wisconsin secondary, as UW failed to record a sack on the 30 times he dropped back.
Hackenberg and his receivers made Wisconsin pay dearly in the process, as Penn State's Allen Robinson caught eight passes for 122 yards and fellow receiver Eugene Lewis brought in three passes of his own for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
"They were checking to a lot of max protect…they were protecting the backside with a running back and tightend," Wisconsin defensive end Tyler Dippel said. "A lot of times we were running three man or four man rushes, which is tough to get pressure when they got six guys, seven guys in there blocking."
"After that we started to mix up our calls, calling a few blitzes. I know a lot of the big throws [Hackenberg] hit he was getting hit as he threw; I thought we were getting there, we were just a step late."
On the flip side, the Badgers’ offensive line not only failed to establish the running game but also failed to protect a struggling Stave, paving the way for just 120 rushing yards and allowing Stave to be sacked three times.
The pass protection was so bad at one point that Wisconsin had to shuffle its offensive line, subbing out sophomore left tackle Tyler Marz—who was severely outplayed by the Penn State defensive ends—and moving left guard Ryan Groy into the tackle spot with Zac Matthias and Kyle Costigan at the guard position.
"We didn’t play well enough," Groy said. "We needed to clean up a couple things in one-on-one pass protection and in the run."
Penn State set the tone early when Hackenberg threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end Adam Breneman on a play-action bootleg to the right side. After initially making the catch, Breneman shook free of Wisconsin would-be tackler Nate Hammon to run 35-yards after the catch into the endzone.
On the Lions’ next drive Hackenberg made the Badgers pay again on the deep ball, this time hitting Robinson on a 52-yard pass to set up a 34-yard field goal attempt. Luckily for Wisconsin, nose tackle Beau Allen got his hand on the ball to block it, as the first quarter ended with the Penn State up 7-0.
"We underperformed, we didn’t execute," UW linebacker Chris Borland said. "They made more plays than we did and it’s as simple as that. It was really frustrating; it was the worst performance of the season by far and at the worst time."
The second quarter belonged to the Badgers, as Stave struck back with a four-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Brian Wozniak and a 20-yard scoring strike to senior wide out Jeff Duckworth, giving the Badgers a 14-7 lead with five minutes left in the half.
But Hackenberg drove the Lions down the field on the next drive, capping off a seven play, 71-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown pass to Lewis.
Strangely, not a single Wisconsin defensive player was anywhere in the general area of Lewis on the play, who was split wide left in a jumbo package. Andersen rushed down the sideline trying to call a timeout when he recognized the situation, but to no avail.
"That personnel package (of Penn State’s) has never been split out," Andersen said in regards to the play. "We’ve never seen a receiver come out of that. It’s not an excuse, it’s inexcusable."
"[Penn State’s] coaches on offense got us today in four or five different scenarios and situations."
The Lions took back control of the momentum and the lead in the third quarter thanks to a six-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to tight end Jesse James—who made an incredible catch over Wisconsin defensive back Dezmen Southward in the back of the end zone to secure the score—following that up with a 28-yard field goal from kicker Sam Ficken to increase their lead to 24-14.
After a pair of interceptions and a 59-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to Lewis, the Badgers found themselves down 31-14 in the fourth quarter. With almost a fourth of the Camp Randall crowd already filing out of the stadium, Wisconsin found a way to make the last 8 minutes of the game very interesting.
After a five-yard touchdown pass from Stave to Wozniak cut the score to 31-21 with 5:38 left, the Badgers’ failed to recover the ensuing onside kick. But a critical false start penalty committed by the Lions and a blocked punt by Leo Musso gave Wisconsin the ball back at their own 42 just 28 seconds later.
Five plays later, Wisconsin’s Jack Russell muscled the ball just enough to connect on a career long 48-yard attempt to cut Penn State’s lead to 31-24 with 4:13 left.
"I was pretty excited knowing that I gave my team an opportunity to come back and help win this thing," Russell said. "I knew it came off well. I got a bit under it but I knew I hit it well enough and that it was straight."
With the partially filled Camp Randall coming to life, Penn State found itself backed up in its own territory on a 3rd and 9. After checking out of the initial play, the Lions went with a delayed draw to halfback Zach Zwinak, who took the ball 61-yards to the Wisconsin 21-yard line, deflating the crowd and delivering the eventual dagger to the Badgers’ come back hopes.
Even though Fricken missed the ensuing field goal, Wisconsin started their final drive at their own 20 with just 31 seconds left. Although Stave made things interesting by completing two passes to Jared Abbrederis to bring the Badgers into Penn State territory, Stave’s final heave into the end zone was intercepted by the Lions’ Ryan Keiser.
"It’s a tough deal," Andersen said. "Senior Day, it meant a lot to get a victory for these kids but I believe they’ll bounce back and prepare well for the bowl game."