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Roundtable: Last thoughts on Wisconsin’s loss to Penn State

Our writers assemble to close the book on the Big Ten Championship Game.

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

Welcome to another edition of our B5Q roundtable sessions, where we still give Jon Beidelschies crap for his hot take on Wisconsin’s white facemasks.

A trip to Pasadena was not in the cards for the Badgers on Saturday night.

Despite getting out to a 21-point advantage late in the second quarter, Penn State’s aerial attack decimated Wisconsin’s pass defense for the final 35 minutes of the Big Ten Championship Game. UW (10-3, 7-2) couldn’t recover, losing 38-31 in disappointing fashion.

Our band of writers discuss the loss and their thoughts as a whole.

The Good: What went well? (There was some good!)

Owen Riese: Corey Clement, man. He ran like a man possessed Saturday night. Aside from the two fumbles (which UW recovered), he probably had his best game when it mattered most. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, his two best games came in two of their three defeats.

Jon Beidelschies: The first quarter-and-a-half (two-thirds? three-quarters?) was some of the best football Wisconsin has played this year. They ran the ball down the throat of a good Penn State defense, the front seven was making a living in the Nittany Lion backfield, and the line kept Bart Houston upright. It was fun up until the last minute or two of the first half, which augured the nightmare that followed.

Kevin O’Connell: The way Wisconsin ran the ball throughout the game was really impressive. In front of a national, primetime audience, the Badgers put on a clinic running the ball behind a vintage, corn-fed offensive line and boy was it fun to watch. For the first time this season, it was tough to blame the offense as the main reason why the Badgers lost this football game.

Neal Olson: The offensive line really improved over the course of the season and was showcased against a very good Penn State defense. Wisconsin was able to consistently move the ball, almost entirely on the ground. This season saw the Badgers rely heavily on their defense to control ball games. For the most part, the offense was a ho-um afterthought. Saturday against Penn State, they collectively played probably the best game of the year, led by the offensive line.

The Bad: The defensive collapse is evident. Is there a particular element that stood out? What else didn’t go well beside that phase of the game?

Owen: 1) It became overwhelmingly clear how much bigger Penn State’s receivers are than Wisconsin’s DBs. The Badgers were simply outmatched in contested-catch situations. 2) The Badgers need to remedy their nickel cornerback spot, because this isn’t the first time teams have picked on Lubern Figaro. Either he or Natrell Jamerson needs to take hold of the spot, or they need more help to their side.

Jon: The issues in the second half were the same issues we’ve seen in other games in which the Badgers have struggled. The deep-ball issue has been out there since the Michigan game, but the offensive line had its lunch handed to it in the second half. Wisconsin couldn’t sustain drives or keep Houston vertical, which gave Penn State more opportunities to throw the ball far.

We also got a gentle reminder of why Houston lost his starting job in the first place. He’s been pretty good in limited showings since Alex Hornibrook took over, but we had all collectively forgotten how frequently the offense stalled out at times when he started. It’s much easier to cover up a hole in the secondary when the opposing offense does not have ball. One more score early in the third quarter would probably have been enough to put the game away.

Also, I always worry that the long, “sponsored by Dr. Pepper or some other multi-national corporation selling us carcinogenic veggie chips” halftimes in these big games work against the team with the momentum. The Badgers came out flat in the third quarter and I wonder if some of it was a function of sitting for a long time during the b-list halftime show. Not blaming our corporate overlords at Dr. Pepper, mind you, just making an observation.

Kevin: The defensive collapse was shocking, considering the intensity and purpose Wisconsin’s defense was playing with in the first half. But I agree with a lot of what Neal alludes to, in that the Badgers’ secondary was exposed athletically. Trace McSorley was phenomenal through the air and for the first time in almost two months, the defense was tasked with stopping big-time athletes at wide receiver and an all-Big Ten running back. Penn State’s offensive line did a good job slowing down the pass rush in the second half, allowing McSorley to attack either Jamerson or Figaro and the results were not pretty.

Neal: This may feel like hindsight talking, but the blueprint for beating the Wisconsin defense was out there. Both Minnesota and Illinois attacked the secondary, albeit with limited success. But clearly the story on film for opposing offensive coordinators was to challenge the secondary with deep passes. Unfortunately for those teams, they did not have the arm talent at quarterback nor the athletes at receiver to consistently take advantage. Penn State had both. McSorley and the Penn State receivers were difference-makers. Aside from a few glaring misplays, the Badger defensive backs were often good position, they just got beat by superior (and taller) athletes.

A few days removed from the loss, what are your feelings on this 2016 season, with all the talk of a tough schedule and 10 wins, with the bowl game left to play?

Owen: I tweeted this last night, but if you'd have told me that with this schedule the Badgers would end up 10-3 with a loss in the Big Ten championship, I’d have been ecstatic. I wouldn’t have guessed Penn State would beat them, but overall it was another great regular season, and Paul Chryst’s tenure as head coach is going well. Continued re-stocking of talent through recruiting is on the way as well. The future is bright in Madison, even if the dark was deafening last night.

Jon: Yeah, I’m with Owen. A 10-win season and a chance to win a pretty decent bowl is by all measures a successful season. The Badgers dropped three games all season long against top-10 opponents, each by just a touchdown. With a few breaks, they could be undefeated Big Ten champions. I have seen a lot discussion about “this is what Wisconsin is” on the social media-sphere, but honestly, if Wisconsin is consistently a 10-win team, playing in conference title games, winning multiple games against top-10 teams, permanently owning the Axe, with a clean program filled with student-athletes who are easy to get behind, then I’m enthusiastically on board.

Kevin: It’s hard to be disappointed in a 10-win season that included a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl, some much-needed national exposure and perhaps the biggest non-conference win in school history. But I do often wonder what Wisconsin fans did to deserve such heartbreaking losses year after year. The Badgers were handful of plays away from being 12-1 and in the College Football Playoff, and that’s good enough for me. With a large portion of the team returning and an easier schedule next year, Wisconsin should be right back in the thick of things in 2017.

Neal: At this point, Wisconsin is fully entrenched in the “always exceeding expectations” designation as a program. To echo everyone’s thoughts above, the challenging schedule uncertainty at quarterback going into the year, along with a rash of in-season injuries combine to make feeling anything but satisfaction and admiration seem trivial.

However, the Badgers were realistically a handful of plays away from playing in the College Football Playoff. Talk about a program game-changer! If Wisconsin wants to make the leap from “solid program always exceeding expectations” to elite, 2016 was a giant missed opportunity. Or maybe more appropriately, a series of missed opportunities. Chryst definitely seems to have the Badgers headed toward bigger and better things, but I wonder if will 2016 serve as a tipping point of sorts for the program? The heartbreak against college blue-bloods as proof the team is very close to breaking into the upper echelon? Or as continued proof that Wisconsin will perennially be very good, but not great?