It wasn't the battle the Badgers were expecting, but it was a battle they got.
Entering Camp Randall Saturday as 24-point favorites over a banged-up Penn State (4-4 Big Ten, 7-5 overall) squad, Wisconsin (6-2, 9-3) was simply out-matched in every sense of the word, deviating from its run-first game plan and looking confused for long stretches on defense.
Head coach Gary Andersen made no excuses for the 31-24 loss, simply stating that his team was out-coached and out-played at the worst possible moment: seeking a BCS bid on Senior Day.
"It was very obvious that they were pretty well schooled up on how to attack us," Andersen said. "They changed the pace. Honestly, that was very unusual for them ... we didn't handle it very well."
Penn State used a strategy that many before have tried on Wisconsin: Stack the box with as many players as possible to stop the run, forcing UW to test its luck through the air.
The Badgers responded by dropping their traditional reliance on the rushing game, giving redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Stave 55 pass attempts compared to the team's combined total of 30 rushing attempts.
"I guess if I summed it up real simple ... football becomes really hard to play when you can't rush the passer consistently and you can't protect the passer," Andersen said. "It's a tough spot to be in."
Stave was up and down all day, recording three interceptions and on several occasions missing his target's area code entirely.
Nittany Lions' quarterback Christian Hackenberg was Stave's polar opposite, throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns, staying on an even keel throughout the back-and-forth game. UW's opponents have recorded an average of 176 passing yards per game, until Hackenberg nearly doubled that number Saturday.
"We underperformed, we didn’t execute," redshirt senior linebacker Chris Borland said. "They made more plays than we did, and it is as simple as that."
Penn State came out early with a 68-yard touchdown pass, catching the Wisconsin defense sleeping just two minutes into the game.
Another bad break gave PSU the momentum going into halftime, when a botched coverage allowed an uncovered Penn State receiver to walk into the end zone unchallenged.
"That personnel package has never been split out. Never seen a receiver come out of that. That's not an excuse though," Andersen said. "Their coaches on offense, they got us today in four or five different scenarios and situations."
Andersen had called for a timeout on the play, which tied the score at 14 roughly a minute before half, but was not heard in time.
For much of the third quarter the Badgers' defense looked confused. They had trouble adjusting to audibles and even survived one play with just nine players due to a substitution error.
"A lot of the times we were trying to wait until the last second to see what [scheme] they were going to end up in," senior defensive end Tyler Dippel said. "The way we had our substitutions, we had a couple different packages and that caused a lot of guys to come in and out."
Neither team could seem to distance itself until a high pass tipped off the hands of redshirt senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis was intercepted, setting up a touchdown pass for the Nittany Lions that put them up 31-14 just two minutes into the fourth quarter.
“We had some battles, but we just weren’t able to take advantage of a couple of the shots we took," Abbrederis said. "I feel like we got in a rhythm, we just weren’t able to finish drives"
Wisconsin was able to close out a 10-point comeback in the final quarter with a 48-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Jack Russell, but it would ultimately fall short when Stave's hail mary attempt was intercepted with one second left in the game. The score would stand at 31-24.
The loss effectively ends the Badgers hopes for a BCS Bowl berth. UW was just one spot away from an at-large bid, and the loss will surely drop three-loss Wisconsin out of contention.
"The way we played today and the way I coached them, obviously, we don't deserve to have that opportunity," Andersen said. "So we'll move on. Such is life."