STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – With two overtime losses in its last three games, Wisconsin’s lone overtime series Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium followed an all-too-familiar path.
It all came tumbling down when defensive end Sean Stanley climbed through the Badgers’ offensive line to sack quarterback Curt Phillips on the second play of the drive and the UW offense stalled before Kyle French sent a 44-yard field goal wide left. And that missed try from the beleaguered kicker was enough for Penn State (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) to end an emotional Senior Day with a 24-21 win over Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4).
“I felt like I hit it really well actually,” French said. “All day I was hitting it very well, and when I looked up the ball was just to the left of the upright and I saw it slowly sailing back and I thought it actually had a pretty legit shot at going in.”
The Badger defense held the Nittany Lions to a Sam Ficken field goal on the opening possession of the extra period. But senior tailback Montee Ball appeared to have a clear path to the end zone and the game-winning score on the second play of the drive until PSU defensive tackle Jordan Hill jumped into the gap and flattened Ball after a 1-yard gain.
Hill – who proved a constant menace to Phillips, logging two sacks, three tackles for a loss and 12 total tackles – made what UW head coach Bret Bielema described as an “unbelievable play.”
“I thought I was gone,” Ball said of the play. “Eyes got really big, but we knew what [Hill] was capable of doing and he made a great play.”
After a dominant second half from Penn State in which senior quarterback Matt McGloin threw for 153 of the 200 yards he finished with, it took another late drive form Phillips to even force extra time. For the second time in as many games, the fifth-year senior led the Badgers to the game-tying score, this one covering 66 yards to tie the game with 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
With flurries pouring down over a raucous Beaver Stadium crowd, Phillips rolled right before finding a diving Jeff Duckworth in the front of the end zone to knot things up at 21.
But for the third time in four games – the two previous overtime losses coming against Michigan State and Ohio State – the late drive proved fruitless. Both Bielema and UW players seemed at a loss for words for what left them with a string of painstakingly close losses.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Phillips said. “We’ve been in positions to win them and we just haven’t done it. We have to figure out what this is that’s holding us back from finishing them and learn from it.”
Wisconsin’s offense opened its regular season finale with a renewed spring in its step, as Phillips hit redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon along the right sideline for a 57-yard touchdown pass less than two minutes into the game. Penn State answered quickly behind the physical, intelligent running of 6-foot-1 redshirt sophomore running back Zach Zwinak.
Zwinak found plenty of room in the middle of the Badgers’ defensive line and powered his way through defenders for extra yards to finish with a career-high 179 yards on 36 carries.
Wisconsin’s second score came in historic fashion, as Ball handled a toss to the right side before tiptoeing his way along the right sideline and into the end zone to earn his 79th career touchdown and making him the NCAA’s all-time career touchdown leader.
The momentum from the senior running back’s historic tromp into the end zone, along with strong play from a Badger secondary that limited McGloin and co. to 47 yards through the air in the first half, made it appear UW was on pace for its first win in two weeks. But Ball’s yards per carry dropped from 6.5 in the opening half to 4.1 by game’s end as Wisconsin’s offensive momentum came to a screeching halt in the third quarter.
“We were able to get on the perimeter with some edges and then they started widening their technique, started playing outside in and we never really got back on rhythm with that,” Bielema said of Penn State’s defensive adjustments. “I thought there were quite a few critical third-down drops where we had some guys that were open in that stretch.”
Those adjustments from the Penn State defense – a unit playing without senior middle linebacker and emotional leader Michael Mauti – limited the Badgers to 38 yards on the ground in the second half.
The Nittany Lions appeared to tie things up at 14 after McGloin launched a pass into the hands of wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder in the back of the end zone early in the third quarter. But an official review ruled the redshirt junior bobbled the ball on his way down and forced the home squad to settle for a field goal.
Wisconsin’s offense failed to answer, logging four consecutive three-and-outs, and Penn State capitalized with another Ficken field goal. After that, a 41-yard touchdown pass to speedy tight end Jesse James handed the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game.
From there, it was d?j? vu.
“You can sit here all day [and play out] ‘what ifs,’ but the biggest thing is not putting ourselves in situations where we can have ‘what ifs,'” defensive end Brendan Kelly said. “I think we have to do a better job of finishing and just having more urgency about our finish in the future.”