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Grading Wisconsin’s Big Ten Championship Game loss to Penn State

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The Badgers dropped a heartbreaker in Indianapolis as the Nittany Lions came back from 21 down.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Wisconsin vs Penn State Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was rough.

The Wisconsin Badgers’ fourth trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game ended in heartbreak Saturday as Wisconsin gave away a 21-point lead to Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions in a 38-31 loss.

Here are the unit grades:

Offense: B-

The Good: For the fourth straight game, the Badgers broke 30 points and did so against the No. 20 defense in the FBS. Corey Clement had 166 rushing yards, 43 receiving yards and a touchdown. The Badgers came out firing, racking up 152 yards of total offense in the first half. Bart Houston led a 14-play, 81-yard drive that took nearly eight minutes capped by an Austin Ramesh one-yard touchdown run to start the scoring. Clement broke off a 67-yard run for a touchdown.

The Bad: The Badgers scored only three points in the second half. The offense could not get one yard when it needed it most, stalling out near the Nittany Lions’ 20-yard line when Clement was tackled with a minute left to put the game out of reach. Clement put the ball on the ground several times, shaking his (and pretty much everyone else’s) confidence for large stretches of the third quarter. Houston missed a wide-open touchdown pass under pressure in the third quarter.

It wasn’t a great game, but the problems Saturday were (surprisingly) not with the offense.

Defense: D+

Line/Linebackers: B+u

Secondary: Searches for meaning in a cold and unforgiving universe. Finds none.

Oh man.

The Badgers’ defense, while fierce this season, has been susceptible to big-play throws all year long. This weakness finally caught up to them as Penn State quarterback McSorley torched the Badgers for 384 passing yards and four touchdowns to rally from three scores down.

The Badgers looked great in the first quarter-and-a-half as Ryan Connelly recovered a botched Penn State snap, returning it 12 yards for a touchdown and T.J. Watt got a strip sack late in the second, sending McSorley to the trainer’s table in the process.

But big plays through the air were the story. Penn State got some momentum late in the first quarter with an acrobatic 33-yard touchdown catch from tight end Mike Gesicki. After going down 28-7, the Nittany Lions’ rally started with a minute left in second quarter, when Lubern Figaro missed a tackle on a 40-yard touchdown throw to Saeed Blacknall.

Penn State came out firing after the Badgers stalled out to start the third quarter, scoring on a 70-yard touchdown pass to Blacknall on the first play of their drive. Wisconsin was on its heels most of the half, allowing a rushing touchdown and an 18-yard touchdown pass to running back Saquon Barkley. Penn State capped the scoring with a late field goal.

It was a meltdown from a normally rock-solid defense. McSorley and Barkley had huge games. Blacknall had 155 yards with two touchdowns and DaeSean Hamilton had 118 yards.

Special Teams: B

Pretty much everyone did their job. Andrew Endicott made a short field goal late in the third quarter and missed a 48-yard attempt at the start of the second half. Anthony Lotti had four solid, if not spectacular, punts. The return game did not get many opportunities.

Coaching: D+

The Badgers came out in the first quarter ready to play and dominated for long stretches at the start of the game. The long halftime played in favor of a Penn State team that’s shown a remarkable ability to bounce back in the second half his year. For Wisconsin, the second-half adjustments were nil as the Badgers continued to get torched in the secondary and couldn’t get anything going offensively.

Overall: D+

Mama said there’d be days like this. Just wish it hadn’t been in Indy.

The bowl picture is murky, but a Cotton Bowl berth against Western Michigan feels likely. I suspect that whomever gets the Badgers next gets an angry defense ready to make a statement. I look forward to it after this unpleasant evening.