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What went wrong in Wisconsin’s loss to Penn State

A 28-7 lead disappeared for the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship Game in uncharacteristic fashion.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Wisconsin vs Penn State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS—In a game of football Legos, one in which you could construct the ideal team to hold onto a 21-point advantage, you would likely put together these pieces:

  • One of the top defenses in the nation
  • A steady rushing attack that has already established itself
  • A unit proven to be unfazed by any circumstances

In short: you could have put together the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers.

The No. 6 Badgers, staked to a 28-7 lead with one minute remaining in the second quarter, uncharacteristically faltered as the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions scored 31 of the game’s final 34 points to claim the Big Ten title, 38-31, on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

In going from domination to the wheels falling off, from Roses to Cotton, what went wrong?

After forcing a second consecutive turnover-on-downs in Penn State territory with 3:25 left in the half, the Badgers held a prime opportunity to lay the dagger. Instead, two incompletions by quarterback Bart Houston gave the Nittany Lions the ball back.

Following two third-down conversions, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw to the sideline to receiver Saeed Blacknall. Wisconsin cornerback Lubern Figaro had a jump on the route, but Blacknall made the grab in front of Figaro at the Badgers’ 30-yard line. Figaro, who gave up a 33-yard touchdown for Penn State’s first score of the game, whiffed on a tackle as the receiver ran scot-free into the end zone to draw within 28-14 at halftime.

It was one of many plays on which head coach Paul Chryst and crew could look back upon.

The Badgers opened the second half with the ball and drove down the field before stalling to set up a 48-yard field goal attempt by kicker Andrew Endicott. The kick sailed wide right, preventing Wisconsin from regaining a three-score advantage.

One play later: McSorley to Blacknell, this time for 70 yards and a score. 28-21 with 10:58 remaining in the game.

It was the continuation of the dissection of the Wisconsin defense, which entered Saturday ranked third in scoring but proved simply hapless in stopping the Nittany Lions. After forcing two punts and two turnovers in the first five possessions of the game, the Badgers allowed 31 points in just under 31 minutes.

The pass rush that stymied McSorley to open the game was nowhere to be found in the second half as the Nittany Lions’ protection gave their junior quarterback time in the pocket. On the back end, Penn State attacked Wisconsin’s secondary with success play after play.

The final damage was two season-worsts—435 yards and 38 points—and also a feeling of distraught as the Rose Bowl slipped away.

Despite getting punched in the mouth to open the half, Wisconsin found itself at the 10-yard line of Penn State as the third quarter wound down. Facing second down, tight end Troy Fumagalli was wide open for a sure-fire touchdown, but Houston threw wide while being blitzed. The Badgers settled for a field goal to reclaim the lead, but the Nittany Lions were a runny nose that it didn’t have a tissue for. All it took was four plays for McSorley and crew to travel 81 yards and score on an 18-yard pass to running back Saquon Barkley.

Just like that, Wisconsin trailed for the first time all night as the seven points left on the board began to loom large.

Still down 35-31, the Badgers’ defense appeared to have its first stop since the second quarter after flushing McSorley out of the pocket forced him to throw the ball away. But linebacker Leon Jacobs took McSorley to the ground after the throw, resulting in a 15-yard penalty and first down. Tyler Davis struck a 24-yard field goal to cap the scoring at 38-31.

Still, yet, Wisconsin was not out.

Houston marched the offense down inside Penn State territory, where a fourth-and-one from the 24 with just over one minute left could possibly decide the game. Wisconsin called its first timeout, which meant that the game would essentially be over if the Badgers were stopped, and handed off to running back Corey Clement.

The senior back had 166 yards on the day and needed just one more to sustain hope.

Much like Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl bid, he came up just short.