Heavy underdog Penn State shocks Wisconsin
MADISON, Wis. — A holder of bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics with a plan on working toward a Ph.D, Penn State guard John Urschel is adept at understanding numbers.
He heard one earlier this week that just didn't compute.
“I mean, 24-point underdogs?” Urschel asked rhetorically of the Las Vegas line — 241⁄2 points — his Nittany Lions faced while playing at No. 14 Wisconsin. “C'mon.
“That number bothered me some.”
It bothered the rest of the Lions, too. So much so that they took it out on the Badgers.
Christian Hackenberg passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns, and Penn State built a big lead and held on to shock the Badgers, 31-24, on Saturday night.
Coach Bill O'Brien said earlier in the week that he wasn't aware of the point spread, one that was verified as the biggest Penn State faced since 1985 and believed to be the biggest ever.
O'Brien's smirk said it all as he walked to the podium for his postgame news conference.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” he said. “I don't know who makes those lines, and I'm not allowed to talk about betting, but it seems like you guys (in the media) felt like it was the right line. And you're wrong.”
Eugene Lewis had two touchdown catches, and Allen Robinson had eight receptions for 122 yards for Penn State (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten), which completed its second season under O'Brien the same way it did the first: With an inspiring win over Wisconsin.
The Badgers (9-3, 6-2) had won six consecutive games and 27 of their past 29 at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin came in fifth in the nation in scoring defense (13.4 points/game) and second in the Big Ten in scoring offense (36.8).
The Badgers finished well below those averages Saturday, obliterating their chances at a BCS bowl bid.
“It was very obvious that they were pretty well schooled up,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said of the Lions.
Led by true freshman Hackenberg — who completed 21 of 30 passes and had the best game of his career — Penn State's passing offense was crisp. The Lions' defense applied pressure on quarterback Joel Stave and forced three turnovers.
Hackenberg connected on touchdown passes of 68 yards to Adam Breneman in the first quarter and 59 yards to Lewis in the fourth, in addition to a 52-yard completion to Robinson and a 61-yard run by Zach Zwinak — the four longest plays that Wisconsin's defense has given up this season.
The shortest of Hackenberg's scoring throws had to be the easiest touchdown pass of his career. With 76 seconds to play before halftime on second-and-goal from the 3, Lewis jogged to take his spot wide left. No Wisconsin defender followed him.
Lewis signaled to get Hackenberg's attention, and Andersen frantically ran down the sideline to get the official's attention who was standing on the line of scrimmage. Despite it appearing Andersen was in front of the official signaling for a timeout as the ball was snapped, no timeout was granted, and Hackenberg flipped the ball to Lewis for his first touchdown since the season opener Aug. 31.
“I guess I wasn't fast enough,” Andersen said.
Stave threw two second-quarter touchdowns — 4 yards to Brian Wozniak and 20 to Jeff Duckworth — in between the Lions' first-half scores. But the Badgers' offense that had averaged 41 points per game at home was shut out in the second half until a 5-yard reception by tight end Brian Wozniak with 5:38 left and a Jack Russell career-best 48-yard field goal that pulled Wisconsin to within 31-24 with 4:13 to play.
Wisconsin forced a third-and-9 from the Penn State 18, but Zwinak ran a draw play up the middle 61 yards with 3 minutes to play. Sam Ficken later missed a 31-yard field goal, but the Lions had run down the clock to 31 seconds left.
Given a chance to drive 80 yards in 31 seconds to tie the score, the Badgers advanced as far as the Penn State 41. But Ryan Keiser intercepted a Hail Mary pass in the end zone with one second to play.
“That's our bowl,” said O'Brien, whose team is banned from postseason play by the NCAA. “We came out on top against a very good team, a team ranked 14th in the country, and deservedly so. We knew they were good, but we know we're good, too. Our kids were resolute in that, and they played well. It certainly means a lot to this senior class.”
The second half began similarly to the first half for a stunned Wisconsin, which went three-and-out and then allowed a 10-play, 67-yard drive. Hackenberg hit Jesse James in the corner of the end zone for a 7-yard score and a 21-14 lead.
The Badgers had not trailed in the second half during their six-game winning streak. Only once all season — at then-No. 4 Ohio State on Sept. 28 — had Wisconsin trailed by as many as 10 points.
Lewis' second touchdown 2:01 into the fourth quarter gave Penn State a 31-14 lead.
“We all knew we were 24-point underdogs. We were all aware of that,” Urschel said. “Just to fight all four quarters — it wasn't always pretty, it wasn't always perfect football. But we got it done.”
Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.
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