They have played in The Horseshoe and The Big House. They have played in the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten championship.
Certainly, no one will accuse Wisconsin’s football players of being strangers to intimidating environments on a big stage. But given the circumstances, what the Badgers will face on Saturday may very well top them all.
Penn State (7-4, 5-2 in the Big Ten), in a season unlike any in program history, will play Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) in its final game of the year in Beaver Stadium in front of more than 106,000 rabid fans, desperately hoping to send their seniors out on a high note. It also happens to be a senior class that held the team together when it was seemingly falling apart following NCAA sanctions in the summer. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.
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Not a single player on Wisconsin’s roster has been to Happy Valley. Wisconsin last played there in 2007, when it lost 38-7. And the Badgers are bracing themselves for an emotionally charged atmosphere.
“I hear Penn State is something pretty special,” Badgers linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. “Obviously, we kind of know it’s going to be pretty electric there. It’s going to be an us against the world mentality.”
Added Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward: “I expect it to be crazy. From everything that I’ve heard and every game that I’ve ever seen of Penn State, I’m expecting it to be up there with the best of any places I’ve ever been.”
This isn’t just any Senior Day. It will honor a group that endured the firing of long-time coach Joe Paterno and helped put the pieces of the program back together in the offseason.
First-year Penn State coach Bill O’Brien praised his group of seniors for believing in the program after the NCAA banned the team from postseason play for four years in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, which led to Paterno’s dismissal.
“They’ll take away the fact that they really helped the community move forward,” O’Brien said. “They were a part of that. They grew up a lot here. I was thinking back to when I was 21, 22 years old. I think that’s a hard thing to deal with when you’re in your early 20s. These guys are a special group of guys.”
Thirty-one seniors will be honored, but perhaps the two most recognizable names from the class are outspoken linebacker Mike Mauti and quarterback Matt McGloin. Mauti, who is second on the team with 95 total tackles, will miss his final game because of a left knee injury.
McGloin, meanwhile, has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 3,066 yards with 23 touchdowns and five interceptions. Last season, McGloin shared snaps with Rob Bolden and completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 1,571 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
“He’s playing confident, and he’s not making a lot of the mistakes that he did last year,” Southward said. “I think that’s the biggest thing just seeing the difference between his film last year and this year is he’s a much more confident quarterback, and he’s throwing the ball where it needs to go.”
McGloin said he would most miss the feel of more than 100,000 Nittany Lions supporters at his back when his time at Penn State is done. But he is grateful to have one more opportunity to showcase his talent in Beaver Stadium — and he is grateful for the opportunity to have played the season at all.
“We just wanted to get out and play the game of football again,” McGloin said. “To get a win on Saturday would be special.”
No matter the outcome, Wisconsin is guaranteed of going to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. Penn State’s postseason ban, coupled with Ohio State’s postseason ban, gave Wisconsin the Leaders Division spot two weeks ago. But with a raucous atmosphere expected, the last thing the Badgers want to do is play poorly and back their way into a conference championship game. Wisconsin lost 21-14 in overtime to Ohio State last week.
“It’s a huge thing,” Southward said. “All records aside, you just want to go into the game confident. You definitely don’t want to go into a Big Ten championship game losing two straight.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema expects Beaver Stadium to be one of the toughest venues his players have seen. The Badgers are still playing for a Rose Bowl berth. The Nittany Lions are simply playing for pride.
“They know they’re not doing anything beyond this weekend,” Bielema said, “so it’ll be an emotional push that I’m sure is very, very strong.”