STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — For the second straight week, the Wisconsin offense stalled in the second half. And for the second straight week, senior quarterback Curt Phillips brought the Badgers back from the brink of defeat in the final seconds to force overtime Saturday.
Getting the ball back with three minutes, 51 seconds left in the game and his team down seven, Phillips orchestrated a 66-yard scoring drive to tie the game at 21 after UW previously gained just 83 yards in the half.
Even though Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) lost the game 24-21 in overtime to Penn State (8-4, 6-2) at Beaver Stadium, Phillips continued to show grit in the most critical moment for the Badgers.
Phillips’ final line was not statistically impressive — 12 of 25 through the air for 191 yards, two touchdowns and an interception — but when it mattered most, Phillips was clutch, completing six of his seven passes for 54 yards and the game-tying score on the fourth quarter drive.
“[The drive showed] what kind of person he is,” said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. “He got his tail knocked off a couple times today but bounced back every time.”
It was a drive full of tense moments, including a first-and-10 play where Phillips was sacked by star Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who harassed the Badgers’ signal-caller and the Wisconsin backfield all game with 12 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss.
But the crown jewel of the drive came on its final play. On a fourth-and-goal with just 23 seconds left and the ball on the 4-yard line, Phillips took the snap and rolled right. As the Wisconsin quarterback let the ball go, the stadium seemingly stood still, but it was the Badgers’ sideline that exploded in celebration, as Phillips connected with little-used wide receiver Jeff Duckworth for the score.
It was a play, Bielema said, the team practiced to use for two-point conversions. But with the game on the line on fourth down, the Badgers had no choice but to burn it, as the team went for the extra point after the score rather than for the two-point conversion for a chance to win the game.
“That [touchdown play] was exactly what we would have called on the two-point play,” Bielema said.
The play was designed to find tailback Montee Ball out in the flat with Duckworth setting a pick on the route, but when a Nittany Lions defensive back fought through Duckworth, Phillips threw the ball low to his receiver.
“(Duckworth) did a great job of going down and getting it,” Phillips said.
Phillips fought through several forms of adversity leading up to the late scoring drive, including multiple drops from his wide receivers, a fourth quarter interception and shoddy pass protection from his offensive line as the game progressed.
It seemed every time the quarterback ran a designed rollout for a pass play, a Penn State linebacker or defensive lineman was waiting to lay a lick on the fifth-year senior, forcing early throws that were still on target.
“It’s really frustrating,” Phillips said of the game’s outcome. “The two minute (drive), that’s exactly how we practiced it and we didn’t finish in overtime.”
“I don’t really know exactly why or what it is, but we just have to learn from it and make sure we take it going forward because we have huge games still in front of us.”
McGloin thrives with lack of Wisconsin pass rush
Phillips’ counterpart, Penn State senior quarterback Matt McGloin, was stellar in his final collegiate game, completing 19 of his 27 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown.
But what made the real difference in the tale of two quarterbacks was the amount of time the Penn State offensive line bought for McGloin, who routinely sat in the pocket for three to five seconds and waited for his receivers to either beat a Wisconsin defender in man coverage or slip into open holes on zone coverage.
While McGloin was sacked twice, the quarterback was shifty in the first half, escaping a sure David Gilbert sack and constantly extending the play by rolling away from pressure, completing some impressive sideline throws in the process.
McGloin was one of many Penn State players who elected to stay with the program in the wake of crippling sanctions against the football program. The Nittany Lions’ quarterback appears to have benefitted from the tutoring and coaching of first-year head coach Bill O’Brien, whose résumé includes time in the NFL coaching the Patriots’ Tom Brady.
The Wisconsin defensive players took notice of the marked improvement of McGloin in just one season, as the quarterback threw for just 97 yards on 9 for 17 passing the last time he faced the Badgers at Camp Randall in 2011.
McGloin went 5 for 12 through the air on third down and converted his only passing try on fourth down Saturday evening, connecting with tight end Jesse James for a critical 41-yard touchdown to put the Nittany Lions up 21-14 early in the fourth quarter.
“He’s 180 degrees different,” said Wisconsin defensive end Brendan Kelly, who registered four tackles and a sack at Beaver Stadium. “He’s really had a great turnaround. … He’s done a fantastic job. He’s a good football player; I think he’s a really smart kid and they know how to use his abilities to the fullest.”