Ultimately, the Wisconsin Badgers' game against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday was always a meaningless one. UW had already clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game, while Penn State are ineligible for postseason competition, but the game was a litmus test for the Badgers at the very least.
Wisconsin hasn't played a decent team on the road since they faced off against Nebraska, their Big Ten championship game opponents. They could have gone into that game with momentum, after sending a message by beating a solid team, on the road, in bad weather, on their senior day. They couldn't pull it off.
For the second consecutive week, backup quarterback Curt Phillips led a game-tying drive in the 4th quarter to fire the Badgers into overtime. Also for the second consecutive week, they couldn't get it done in the extra period. A poor offensive sequence in OT set up Kyle French for a 44-yard field goal in swirling wind, and he was unable to convert as Penn State won, 24-21.
The first quarter was mostly positive for the Badgers, though their defense did allow a long touchdown drive. Based on the first three drives of the game, it appeared that the crowd at Happy Valley was in for a shootout, but Penn State and Wisconsin eventually remembered that they play in the Big Ten, where fun is expressly prohibited by conference bylaws. Thanks for that, Jim Delany!
Phillips and Melvin Gordon got UW off to a brilliant start, connecting for a 57-yard touchdown that quieted Beaver Stadium, but Zach Zwinak and the Nittany Lions answered with a touchdown of their own on the ensuing Penn State drive. Zwinak had nine carries, a reception, and another target during PSU's 15-play, 78-yard touchdown drive, capped off by Zwinak with a 3-yard touchdown that tied up the score at 7-7.
The highlight of the day for Wisconsin came on their next drive, when Montee Ball broke the all-time Division I touchdowns record, passing Travis Prentice with his 79th career touchdown. Kenzel Doe set up the Badgers with good field position, returning a Penn State kickoff 47 yards into Nittany Lions territory. Jared Abbrederis got them even closer with a 24-yard catch, which was followed up by three Ball runs. The record-breaker was a 17-yard rush that put the Badgers up 14-7, and they would hold that lead until the 4th quarter.
Whatever Matt Canada dialed up to confuse the Penn State defense on the Badgers' first two drives got figured out very quickly. For the rest of the game, Wisconsin's offense struggled. Every possession in the 2nd and 3rd quarters resulted in a punt for the Badgers.
Penn State wasn't able to punch the ball in for a touchdown in the 3rd quarter, but did move down the field very effectively. They opened the 3rd quarter with an 11-play, 77-yard drive to set up a short field goal for Sam Finken, and moved the ball into the red zone to set up another chip-shot field goal on their third drive of the quarter.
Three quarters of conservative play-calling for the Nittany Lions finally paid off for them early in the 4th, while Wisconsin's defense broke down. Matt McGloin put Penn State ahead with a 41-yard strike to Jesse James, and Zwinak converted the ensuing two-point conversion attempt to give PSU a seven-point lead.
Ensuing Wisconsin drives featured a combination of questionable play-calling by Canada, less than spectacular execution by Phillips and some plays that were certainly affected by the weather. Wisconsin got down to the Penn State 20-yard line on their second-to-last drive, but failed to convert on a 4th and 8 play, when Phillips was picked off by Jacob Fagano.
Thankfully for Wisconsin, their defense came up with a big three-and-out, and Phillips got the ball back with just over four minutes remaining in the game. They converted on 3rd down twice, thanks to big catches by Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe. The latter made a reception to set up the Badgers with first and goal at the Penn State 9-yard line, and they eventually turned that opportunity into a game-tying touchdown, though it wasn't easy.
On 3rd and goal from the 4-yard line, Penn State sniffed out a run to Ball and took him down for a 2-yard loss, eliminating any potential element of surprise on 4th down. Penn State had good coverage on the Badgers' 4th down play, a rollout to the right, but Phillips fit the ball into Jeff Duckworth's stomach in a narrow space and he held on for the score to tie the game and force overtime.
Penn State got the ball first in OT and went nowhere, but Ficken snuck a 37-yard field goal attempt just inside the left upright to force Wisconsin to score. Phillips failed to make a play on UW's OT possession, getting sacked on 2nd down and making a poor throw on 3rd down. That put French in a bad spot, and the wind took his 44-yard attempt horribly wide left.
The Wisconsin Badgers finish the regular season 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, which is outrageously disappointing for a team who were considered favorites to make a BCS bowl in preseason. Fortunately, they have one more chance to erase all of this season's disappointment next weekend when they take on Nebraska in Indianapolis.