INDIANAPOLIS—Deep into the Indiana night, long after the crowd dissipated, the cameras were turned off, the game finalized and the Wisconsin Badgers long gone from Lucas Oil Stadium, a collection of Penn State players returned to the turf to celebrate.
At the 24-yard line, the ensemble of Nittany Lions took Instagram photos and laid down in the colorful pile of streamers still lingering on the field to create confetti angels and soak in the moment one last time.
On the opposite 24-yard line, hours prior, a different gathering of white-clad Nittany Lions—11 of them, to be precise—came together to make one final stop to cement an unforgettable collapse for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Leading 28-7 late in the second half, the No. 6 Badgers were running rampant on both sides of the ball against Penn State. That scent wafting its way through the crowd of cardinal red? Roses, with perhaps even a hint of optimism for a College Football Playoff bid.
A 21-point lead, especially given the explosiveness of the Nittany Lions, borders the line of a sure thing in a sport that thrives on chaos. A 21-point lead for this Badgers team, though? One of the more daunting tasks an opponent can face.
Wisconsin, the winner of the Big Ten West, was running all over Penn State, from running back Corey Clement’s 67-yard touchdown dash to linebacker Ryan Connelly’s 12-yard scoop and score.
With one minute to play in the first half and a three-touchdown cushion, it was smooth sailing for the Badgers. But 31 minutes away from a possible, though still unlikely, College Football Playoff appearance or, at worst, a trip to the Rose Bowl, the Badgers fell apart.
Now those two destinations are dreams of weeks past.
For a team so steady with a defense so staunch, there was no explaining the erratic performance matched only by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even an attempt to explain it would have been a boondoggle, falling upon deaf ears as the Penn State contingent ripped the roof off of Lucas Oil Stadium as its team stormed back to claim the conference title.
“This one’s going to sting for a while,” linebacker Vince Biegel said. “It’s going to take a while to get the sour taste out of your mouth.”
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, flustered by constant pressure from Biegel and the Badgers to open the game, eventually settled in and rattled off a performance for Big Ten Championship game lore. The junior McSorley busted the top off of the Wisconsin defense after it had been sealed all season, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns on 22-of-31 passing.
After being outscored 31-3 since 58 seconds remained in the second quarter, the Badgers had one last chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. Facing fourth-and-one at the Nittany Lions’ 24-yard line, Clement rushed to the right side, where he was met by Grant Haley.
“As far as the last play goes, it’s just all about who wanted it more,” Clement said. “And it’s one yard.”
The game-sealing play came down to one yard, but the Wisconsin defense uncharacteristically gave up many of them--435 to be exact.
“You have to give credit to Penn State, they were able to make adjustments,” Biegel said. “It was very important. And they made more plays than we did. That was the outcome of the game.”
McSorley found receiver Saeed Blacknall for a 70-yard touchdown pass on Penn State’s first play of the second half to cut the lead to 28-21 and assert the theme of dominance for the rest of the half.
On their next possession, the Nittany Lions methodically marched down to the goal line, where running back Saquon Barkley scored from one yard out. The scoreboard read as a tie between the two sides at 28, but the 65,018 in attendance could all tell that Wisconsin was reeling.
Following a 24-yard field goal by Wisconsin kicker Andrew Endicott to regain the lead at 31-28, Penn State required only four plays to march 81 yards to pull ahead, 35-31, on a 18-yard pass to Saquon Barkley with 13:41 left in the fourth quarter.
Aided by a costly 15-yard penalty on third down by linebacker Leon Jacobs, the Nittany Lions tacked on another field goal to cap the scoring at 38-31. Led by quarterback Bart Houston, starting in place of Alex Hornibrook, the Badgers marched into Penn State territory before coming up 24 yards short.
“You’ve got to make plays to win a game,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “And it came down to that. They made key plays.”
In the first half, Wisconsin appeared ready to waltz its way to its third Big Ten championship in six seasons. After forcing a three-and-out to open the game, the Badgers went up 7-0 on an Austin Ramesh one-yard touchdown run to cap a drive that consumed eight minutes and 81 yards.
On Wisconsin’s next possession, Clement danced around the left end and darted down the sideline all of 67 yards for a touchdown to put Wisconsin ahead 14-0. The only player that could keep pace with Clement was Badgers wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who engaged a hapless Nittany Lion on a block the length of the play to pave the way for his back.
Clement rushed for 164 yards on 21 carries for his seventh 100-yard game in his last eight.
“It starts up front,” Clement said. “Those guys did a heck of a job making adjustments every time they got a chance to snap the ball. So my hat’s off the offensive line for doing their prep earlier in the week.”
After Penn State responded with a 33-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mike Gesicki and forced a punt on defense, the Badgers fired right back.
On fourth-and-two from its own 42, Penn State’s shotgun snap sailed over the head of quarterback Trace McSorley. With a turnover on downs already a certainty on the play, a fortuitous bounce landed in the hands of linebacker Ryan Connelly, who spun and rumbled his way into the end zone for a 21-7 lead with 7:46 to play in the half.
The Badgers would assert their will once again minutes later.
Facing another fourth down in their own territory, the Nittany Lions kept the offense on the field. Once again, Wisconsin forced a fumble, this time on a strip-sack by linebacker TJ Watt. A seven-yard touchdown run by running back Dare Ogunbowale gave the Badgers a 28-7 edge with 7:46 left in the second quarter.
The Nittany Lions entered the game outscoring opponents 280-105 in the second half, while the Wisconsin scoring defense was ranked third. One of those two had to give. In the end, the Badgers budged and the Nittany Lions made confetti angels.