STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—For the third time in just four games, the Wisconsin Badgers (4-4 Big Ten, 7-5 overall) suffered a heartbreaker in overtime, this time at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions on senior day (6-2, 8-4) by a score of 24-21.
After the Badgers’ defense held Penn State to a field goal in its first possession of overtime, the Badgers looked to build on the 14-play, 66-yard drive that they put together to tie the game at 21 with 18 seconds left in regulation.
After a one-yard rush by senior running back Montee Ball—who passed Travis Prentice’s FBS touchdown record in the first quarter—a sack and an incompletion to redshirt freshman wide receiver Jordan Fredrick, redshirt freshman kicker Kyle French was faced with a 44-yard field goal to send it to a second overtime but missed left.
“When I looked up, the ball was just to the left of the upright and I saw it slowly sailing back. I thought it actually had a pretty legit shot at going in,” he said.
“It always sucks to feel like you let the team down in a way.”
The loss marks the first time the Badgers have lost back-to-back games in November under Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.
“That was a tough kick,” Bielema added. “That was a 43-yarder (actually 44) from the right hash in a windy game.”
Penn State sophomore Sam Ficken nailed a 37-yarder after an incompletion from redshirt senior Matt McGloin, a six-yard run from redshirt sophomore running back Zach Zwinak—who finished with a career-high 179 yards rushing—and another incompletion.
If Ball hadn’t been stuffed behind the line by senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill at the two-yard line with under a minute left on third down after marching down the field and converting on two third downs, the Badgers might not have even gone to overtime.
Bielema wanted the next play, which was a touchdown on fourth-down completion to redshirt junior Jeff Duckworth in the flat, to be used for a two-point conversion attempt.
“We didn’t want to come back and run the exact same play again, so we kicked the PAT and obviously went to overtime," he said.
The Badgers were just 3-of-12 on third downs before the drive. Phillips finished 5-of-6 on the drive despite completing only 7 of his previous 18 passes.
But after the first quarter, Wisconsin never would have guessed they would have been in such a situation in the first place. Despite the Penn State defense holding opponents to just six points prior to Saturday, the Badgers scored 14 points less than nine minutes into the game after a 57-yard screen pass to redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon and a 17-yard touchdown from Ball.
The high confidence level of the offense ended up being short-lived, however, as the Badgers only mustered 84 yards rushing after gaining 74 in the first quarter alone.
Bielema said the difference between the first quarter and the rest of the game can be attributed mostly to a few key adjustments made by the Penn State defensive front.
“We were able to get on the perimeters, the edges,” Bielema said. “[Then] they started widening their technique, started playing outside in. [We] never really got back in rhythm with that.”
Wisconsin punted the ball on eight straight possessions that spanned from the end of the first quarter to near the end of regulation, when redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips was intercepted by Penn State senior safety Jacob Fagnano at the Penn State six-yard line with five minutes remaining in regulation.
Luckily, the Badgers defense kept senior quarterback Matt McGloin and the rest of the Nittany Lions’ offensive attack in check throughout the Badgers’ offensive drought.
McGloin, who just came off of a 395-yard, 4-touchdown game against Indiana last week, finished 19-of-37 with 200 yards and a touchdown. Zwinak needed 36 carries to reach his personal-best rushing total.
“[Zwinak] ran really hard,” junior defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “I thought he was a really good back.”
“They weren’t doing any trickery or anything like that. They were just running the ball.”
Phillips finished 12-of-25 with 191 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Ball ended up with 111 yards on 27 carries.
Despite the unwanted setback just a week before returning to Indianapolis, Ind., for the Big Ten Championship game, Bielema isn’t worried about a potential change in attitude in practice for the upcoming week.
“Yesterday, when we left from Camp Randall and we knew Nebraska had beat Iowa, we knew, getting on the bus, there was a sparkle in our guys’ eyes,” he said. “I knew that would be our rally cry.”