INDIANAPOLIS — Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez is a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. And while that committee tries to figure out whether or not Penn State is worthy of inclusion in the four-team field to compete for a national championship, they can just ask Alvarez’s Badgers, who just got absolutely torched by the Nittany Lions in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game.
The game wasn’t a blowout, but Penn State ran over Wisconsin like a truck in climbing out of a three-touchdown hole and staging an epic, instant-classic comeback in its 38-31 win.
Down 28-7 in the second quarter, the Lions’ offense found its mojo and scored touchdowns on four straight possessions. Quarterback Trace McSorley earned every bit of his MVP award, and the Penn State receivers put on one heck of a display, seemingly catching every ball that came their way, sometimes in jaw-dropping, highlight-reel fashion.
It was a phenomenal performance by the Lions and a not-so-phenomenal performance by a Badgers defense that entered the weekend as one of the best in the country. Wisconsin was the No. 3 team in the country in scoring defense, holding opponents to 13.7 points a game. No team had scored more than 23 points in four quarters against the Badgers. But that went out the window somewhere in the third quarter Saturday.
"It’s tough when you’re in situations like that. You just can’t stop it, pretty much," Wisconsin defensive back Sojourn Shelton said. "They just kept making good plays. We were in good position, everything. They just made a lot more plays."
As mentioned, it did seem like the Penn State receivers were catching absolutely everything. McSorley even mentioned after the game how it felt like he could throw anything up and his guys would come down with it. But this elite Wisconsin secondary was surprisingly gashed for one big play after another. Big plays have been the Lions' trademark this season, but the Badgers' defensive backs have been generally outstanding, too, the defense entering the weekend with a nation-leading 21 interceptions.
Penn State pass-catchers Mike Gesicki, Saeed Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton made that secondary look silly at times Saturday. And that left the defenders shell-shocked.
"We were in situations we don’t lose. In situations like that, 95 percent of the time, it’s either an interception or a knock down," defensive back D'Cota Dixon said. "We just didn’t finish. It’s totally on us, our responsibility as a defense. Our offense did a great job. We didn’t finish defensively like we should have, and I’m sorry. I’m extremely sorry."
There were some mistakes in there, too. Lubern Figaro had a bad missed tackle that allowed Blacknall to waltz into the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown right before halftime, making it just a two-score game heading into the break. And on Penn State's first play of the second half, McSorley found Blacknall for a massive 70-yard touchdown, Blacknall beating the defense.
But in the end, as Shelton mentioned, it came down to the Lions making some incredible plays.
"Their dudes were making plays. It is what it is," Shelton said. "We were in good spots, good position. I don’t think you can find too many plays where guys weren’t in good position. Their players just made the plays. We knew coming in they were going to throw some 50-50 balls, and we knew that we were going to have to make them. We were just unsuccessful in doing that."
So what about that evaluation? The selection committee has its own evaluation process, but so too do the Badgers, who just witnessed first hand how good this Penn State team is.
The Lions did more damage against this Badger defense than Ohio State or Michigan did. By a long shot.
"They’ve got a really good offense, a really good one," Shelton said. "I've faced a lot of offenses in my career here. The threat that they have on the outside with the receivers and the tight end, and then the running back, also the quarterback. They’ve got a really good thing going on right now in that whole offense.
"It was hard. They were rolling. And when a team is rolling like that with so many weapons? You play some teams, they have maybe two or three weapons here or there. But it’s really like five guys: two or three or maybe four receivers and a running back and a tight end and a quarterback. They’ve got a good offense."