It was a tale of two halves at Camp Randall Stadium last weekend, and also inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night.
For Wisconsin this time, it was the victim of an uncharacteristic second-half collapse.
Being up as much as 21 points late in the second quarter, the No. 6 Badgers (10-3, 7-2 Big Ten) gave up 21 unanswered points of their own, then were outscored by three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes in a 38-31 loss to the Nittany Lions (11-2, 8-1).
Those 38 points are the most Wisconsin has given up all season.
Trace McSorley was 22-of-31 for a Big Ten conference championship game-record 384 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Penn State offense accumulated 435 yards overall. Head coach James Franklin’s offense also had two receivers go over 100 yards. In that momentum-changing third quarter alone, the Nittany Lions gained 171 yards.
Wisconsin running back Corey Clement ran for 164 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown, while redshirt quarterback Bart Houston completed 16 of 21 passes for 174 yards with no interceptions.
UW exploded out to a 28-14 lead at halftime behind its rushing attack and taking advantage of mistakes by Penn State. After forcing a three-and-out, Houston drove the offense 81 yards in 14 plays, including a key 24-yard throw to redshirt junior wide receiver Jazz Peavy to move the chains. Fullback Austin Ramesh took a handoff two plays later for a touchdown to give the Badgers a seven-point advantage early on.
The next offensive series led to one of Wisconsin’s key explosive plays. Clement took a handoff out of 13 personnel and took it outside, rumbling down 67 yards for a touchdown. True freshman Quintez Cephus helped with some impressive blocking to spring the senior into the end zone. Clement ended the first half with 113 yards on 13 carries.
Penn State responded with some explosive plays of its own, two of which resulted in touchdowns in the first two quarters. McSorley connected with tight end Mike Gesicki for a 33-yard touchdown over junior cornerback Lubern Figaro to make it a 14-7 UW lead.
On Penn State’s last drive of the second quarter, McSorley’s arm also targeted Figaro, who overplayed a pass intended for Saeed Blacknall. The junior wide receiver caught the pass and took it 40 yards for a touchdown and cut the lead to 14 points heading into halftime. Blacknall finished the game with six receptions for 155 yards and those two scores.
Despite the lapses, Wisconsin’s defense pressured McSorley that half. The Badgers were credited with four quarterback hurries in the first 30 minutes and forced two turnovers with one leading directly to a touchdown. On a third-and-12, a high snap over the head of McSorley was scooped up by former walk-on Ryan Connelly. With a spin move, the redshirt sophomore inside linebacker got into the endzone for a 21-14 lead.
After Penn State unsuccessfully attempted a fourth down from its own 42-yard line, the Badgers drove down the field in five plays, capped off by Dare Ogunbowale’s seven-yard touchdown run to make it 28-7.
Despite the sloppy ending in the second quarter, Wisconsin drove the ball well in its first drive of the second half, but Andrew Endicott’s 48-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
That opened the window for Penn State to continue its aerial assault and dominate the third quarter. McSorley went deep once again, finding Blacknall again for a 70-yard score past nickel back Natrell Jamerson and a turned-around D’Cota Dixon.
Their next offensive series, the Nittany Lions marched 63 yards in eight plays, ending with Saquon Barkley’s one-yard touchdown run to tie the game up at 28-28. McSorley, named the game’s Most Valuable Player, was perfect in his passing attempts in those 15 minutes and had 146 yards passing in that quarter alone, picking on a Badgers secondary that overachieved this season but was susceptible to big plays.
Wisconsin answered back, driving 70 yards in nine plays on the backs of Clement and Shaw. The Badgers couldn’t punch it into the end zone, however, and settled on a 23-yard field goal by Endicott to take a three-point lead.
Again, Wisconsin’s pass defense couldn’t stop a rolling Penn State passing attack. Four plays and 81 yards later, McSorley found Barkley for an 18-yard touchdown pass past outside linebacker T.J. Watt to take a 35-31 lead.
A 24-yard field goal by Tyler Davis capped the scoring with 5:14 left in the game.
Wisconsin, which gained 241 rushing yards, pushed back with a 10-play, 51-yard drive in the final minutes of the game, but Penn State stopped Clement on a fourth-and-1 to thwart any final attempt to tie the game.
The Nittany Lions now await their fate with the College Football Playoff committee. Wisconsin lost its chance of a potential playoff berth and a chance to head to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.