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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."
INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State is the Big Ten champion.
And while historically, that might not be the most surprising phrase in the world, recent history makes that accomplishment almost absolutely unbelievable.
James Franklin arrived in State College less than three years ago, succeeding Bill O'Brien and taking over a program that was entangled in the after effects of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, with sanctions imposed by the NCAA that included severe scholarship limits and a bowl ban, among other things. Meanwhile, there were plenty of after effects that weren’t being imposed by the NCAA but by a large number of Penn State fans, mostly criticisms of the university’s attitude toward longtime coach Joe Paterno and why the crippling results of the scandal hadn’t been quickly overcome.
There was a lot working against Franklin’s team, both inside and outside the Penn State community, and while also competing in a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, it seemed winning — at least winning big — was a long way off. Franklin’s first two seasons ended in 7-6 finishes and trips to low-level bowl games. And that looked like success, given the circumstances.
But fast forward to Saturday night in Indy, where Franklin got to hoist the Big Ten championship trophy. Perhaps a trip to the College Football Playoff could follow Sunday.
Nobody could’ve predicted this. Nobody did.
It’s amazing, really, this 11-2 season that’s featured a win over second-ranked Ohio State and a conference championship. What's more amazing is the timeline, that this journey has reached this point this fast.
“You know, it's hard for me to think about it as just this season,” Franklin said. “It's been a challenging three years. I’ve learned a lot about myself. Learned a lot about my family. I've learned a lot about this community and the men in that locker room, the coaches, the players, the doctors, the trainers, everybody. So for me it's not just the season. It's all the hard work and all the positive steps that we've been taking for three years. It didn't always seem that way maybe to others, but we felt that way. It wasn't easy. Those steps weren't downhill. Those steps were up Mount Nittany. And that's kind of how I look at it.”
Franklin was under a great deal of pressure as recently as early on this season, when after a 2-2 start his athletics director had to provide a vote of confidence in the face of questions about his job status. Restless fans who perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the challenges that came with digging the program out from under the weight of the scandal were demanding winning football.
Well, how’s this for winning football?
Franklin’s been the focal point because he’s the head coach, but the players have had to deal with these challenges, as well. Franklin’s decisions to redshirt guys who could’ve helped the team earlier in his tenure with the hope of future success meant hovering around .500 in each of the past two seasons. That also meant decreased depth in practice and on the roster in general. It meant a lot of players having to learn on the fly. Now that work has paid off. In the form of a championship.
“It’s a great culmination of all the hard work and effort we’ve put in over the past five years as a family,” center Brian Gaia said. “(We’ve been) through two different coaches. It doesn’t matter, we play for each other. And then we start buying in, start playing for everyone in the program. It’s just a culmination of that today, a championship.”
And now maybe that division within the fan base can cease, too. Instead of worrying about how the university should treat the legacy of Paterno, those fans can start recognizing the legacy Franklin is building.
But most of all, Saturday's win is a gargantuan accomplishment for this team and this group of players to block out the noise and all the extra stuff that comes with being Penn State, stuff other programs don’t have to deal with, and win.
They’ve won nine games in a row. And now they’re the kings of the Big Ten.
“It means a lot. For this community, for Penn Staters past, present and in the future. It really is transforming this university, and it’s bringing a sense of happiness to this school,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “All the things that we’ve been through and all the things that we’re still kind of going through, we were able to overcome all of that. And for us to still be a family after all of that and seeing guys really care so much about each other and so much about this team, it is obviously why we’re in the situation we’re in right now.”