Penn State soars past UW
MADISON—Christian Hackenberg threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns, and Penn State pounced on a slew of blunders before holding off a late rally to upset No. 14 Wisconsin 31-24 on Saturday.
Hackenberg, a freshman, showed the poise and touch of a veteran in dissecting a tough defense. Eugene Lewis caught two touchdowns, including a 59-yarder for a 17-point lead with 13 minutes to go.
The Nittany Lions (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) secured a statement win against a team that had been dominant all year at home. Joel Stave threw for three touchdowns for Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2), though Penn State capitalized on second-half interceptions, turning one into Lewis’ long TD.
The Badgers scored 10 points in a span of 1:25 of the fourth quarter, capped by a 48-yard field goal by Jack Russell with 4:13 left to get within a score. Sam Ficken’s 31-yard field goal went wide right with 31 seconds left to give the Badgers one more chance.
But a Hail Mary attempt by Stave was intercepted by Ryan Keiser in the end zone with 1 second left.
The Nittany Lions clinched a winning season on the road, where they had struggled all year in Big Ten play. That’s quite an accomplishment for a program that’s typically dressed about 60 recruited scholarship players as a result of NCAA sanctions resulting from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Penn State can’t go to a bowl game because of the sanctions. But coach Bill O’Brien’s team will nevertheless ride into the offseason on a high note for a second straight season after a win over the Badgers. Penn State beat Wisconsin 24-21 in an overtime thriller to end the 2012 season.
This year’s game was nearly as close, in Camp Randall Stadium, no less, on Senior Day.
Wisconsin has itself to blame.
A high pass from Stave off the fingertips of Jared Abbrederis was picked off by Trevor Williams, who returned it 33 yards to the Penn State 38. Three plays later, Hackenberg let go a deep pass after absorbing a hit from Brendan Kelly that landed in the arms of a streaking Lewis over double coverage for a touchdown and 31-14 lead in the fourth.
In the third quarter, Stave lost the ball after getting rushed on the edge by Brandon Bell. The ball was snatched out of the air by defensive lineman C.J. Olaniyan, who had a 33-yard return to the Wisconsin 19 to set up a 28-yard field goal by Ficken.
Coming into Saturday, this one had all the ingredients for a Badgers blowout, especially with Wisconsin just one spot out of a Top 14 ranking in the BCS standings needed for an at-large berth in a big-money bowl game. The Badgers were rolling on a six-game winning streak.
But it was Penn State that ended up setting the tone in Madison.
The pass rush flustered Stave, who was up-and-down all day. Melvin Gordon ran for 91 yards on 13 carries, but the Badgers’ vaunted running game otherwise didn’t do much damage.
Stave found Brian Wozniak for a 5-yard touchdown pass with 5:38 left to cut the lead to 31-21, before Russell hit his long field goal late.
But the earlier mistakes were just too much to overcome, and Wisconsin watched its hopes for an at-large bid to the Bowl Championship Series slip away.
Give much of the credit to Hackenberg. Wisconsin was giving up just 176 yards passing a game all year, but Hackenberg beat that in the first half alone, going 13 of 16 for 221 yards and two touchdowns, the second coming to a wide-open Lewis from 3 yards.
The Badgers suffered one of several mental errors on the day during that play, leaving Lewis uncovered on second-and-goal with 1:16 left in the half. Realizing the error, coach Gary Andersen frantically ran down the sideline to call a timeout. But the officials either ignored or didn’t see Andersen, who threw his visor down to the turf in a heated argument with two officials after the play.