INDIANAPOLIS — Throughout the season, Wisconsin, which came into the season unranked, proved preseason doubters wrong en route to a surprising Big Ten West title. But, when push came to shove, the Badgers crumbled.
Before the season started, fans and experts alike predicted Wisconsin (7-2 Big Ten, 10-3 overall) would be a strong running team, have a weak pass defense and an unsteady presence under center. In their 38-31 loss to No. 8 Penn State (8-1, 11-2) in the Big Ten Championship game, the Badgers were all of the above.
Wisconsin got off to a hot start, forcing PSU to three-and-outs in each of the Nittany Lions’ first two drives and scoring on both of its own. Both scores came on the ground, but they couldn’t be more different representations of Wisconsin’s night running the ball.
The first was a 1-yard punch-in by redshirt junior fullback Austin Ramesh that came at the tail end of a 14-play, 81-yard drive that soaked up eight minutes of clock. The second was courtesy of senior running back Corey Clement, who took the second play of the drive 67 yards into the endzone.
Clement was asked to do the majority of the offensive work, and he responded in kind.
“[Corey’s] a big time player, and it’s a big time game, you expect that,” redshirt sophomore center Michael Dieter said. “He put the offense on his back when he had to … and he did a great job with that. He gave us a chance to win the game.”
The Badgers stayed hot in the second as redshirt senior running back Dare Ogunbowale scored a rushing touchdown of his own, and redshirt sophomore linebacker Ryan Connelly scooped up a Nittany Lion fumble and ran it for a 12-yard defensive touchdown.
Despite a solid half on the ground, the air was a different story. Junior cornerback Lubern Figaro gave up a pair of touchdowns, one of which was a blown coverage and the other a missed tackle, both things the Badgers have struggled with at various points in the year that ended up coming back to bite them Saturday night.
“We didn’t do enough to make [junior quarterback Trace] McSorley uncomfortable, and they made plays,” head coach Paul Chryst said.
In the second half, the defensive blunders continued, as McSorley threw two more touchdowns, one of which was a 70-yarder to junior receiver Saeed Blacknall, where junior safety D’Cota Dixon overran Blacknall and was unable to make any sort of effort to tackle him. McSorley threw for 384 yards, a Big Ten Championship Game record, as well as four touchdowns as he went on to win the game’s Grange-Griffin Award for the most valuable player.
Despite the errors, UW’s ground game helped it stay in the contest. However, as the game wore on, Penn State was able to focus on stopping the run due to the absence of a reliable Wisconsin passing game. Redshirt senior quarterback Bart Houston ended the game with 174 yards and no touchdowns, unable to get any sort of momentum going, in part because of poor pass blocking down the stretch.
The loss certainly stings for the players, as their slim playoff hopes disappeared, but many were quick to shift focus to the positives.
“I can still say I’m proud of our season,” Dieter said. “It’s not over, we still have one game left, regroup, get prepared for a bowl game, make the most of that.”
While there is certainly heartbreak for players, coaches and fans alike, the currently uncertain future still looms large as the Badgers will get one last shot to prove their preseason pessimists wrong.