MADISON -- Maybe Wisconsin’s senior class is jinxed. Or maybe it just knows how to make games close that otherwise wouldn’t be.
Despite being down 31-14 in the fourth quarter, the Badgers almost pulled off an unthinkable win against Penn State Saturday night. But there was one play that put it all to rest for the Nittany Lions.
With the Badgers nipping at the Nittany Lions' heels trailing 31-24 with just under four minutes left in the game, the Lions were backed up and facing a 3rd-and-9 at their own 18 yard-line.
With Wisconsin sending out just one defensive lineman and zero players in a down stance on what seemed like an obvious passing down, Penn State checked out of its original play and went with a halfback draw to running back Zach Zwinak.
PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg took the snap out of the shotgun with Zwinak on his right side, took a step back, looked upfield and held out the ball for his back. With Wisconsin’s safeties' eyes on the wideouts and the Penn State offensive line locking up its six defenders in the box, Zwinak easily ran 61-yards down the field.
After finally being wrapped up at the Wisconsin 21, the damage was done. Wisconsin was out of timeouts, Penn State had a fresh set of downs and any realistic chance of a Badger win all but evaporated.
"It was a good call by them," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "We still should have stopped it, I believe. They had us when we were in a pass-rush state of mind. They had a little delay draw."
"It was a good check," Wisconsin defensive end Tyler Dippel said. "We had a blitz coming off the edges and it just kind of opened up wide open for them. It was just a good check, a good call."
The Badgers did have a blitz coming off the edge and if’ Hackenberg would have kept the ball, he may have been cemented into the grass by linebacker Ethan Armstrong, who came free off the left edge.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin did have a legitimate chance to bottle up the draw early. Playing big minutes due to the injury of usual starting defensive back Michael Caputo, Wisconsin’s Nate Hammon found himself the lone man back in the middle when Penn State ran the draw.
The Lions had four wide on the formation, including three to the left. On the play, the wideout tightest to the offensive tackle chipped off Borland, as the right tackle sealed off the linebacker while the wideout effectively turned Hammon away from the play.
It would have been a hard play for Hammon to make and required him to read the draw instantly, but he was the most immediate defender in the area of the run. Also, nothing can be taken away from the execution of the PSU offensive line, which effectively funneled UW’s five pass rushers to the outside, giving Zwinak a hole large enough to drive a Mack truck through.
"The draw wasn't a surprise. The draw is a staple of their offense," Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said. "They hit it. They blocked it up and did a tremendous job there. You can't be in that position with as good a coach as Penn State has and think that a draw's not an option for them.
"They're going to be smart and try to run the clock and get the first down. It hit. It popped on us. We were in pretty much you know, we were up, moving around defensively, but we were gap sound, but they blocked us."
The play was the most visible moment out of several in the game that showcased the offensive mastery of Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien -- PSU's chief play caller, too -- and the upper hand he held on Wisconsin and its defensive coaches.
"Obviously, coach O’Brien is calling it out there for them now," Andersen said. "He calls the whole offense. So he got us to where he wanted us a few times, and we got schemed up pretty good by a very good football coach, and they took advantage of it.