MADISON, Wis. — They gathered near the north end zone one final time, a group of the most successful football players in Wisconsin history doing something rarely seen at Camp Randall Stadium in recent memory: sulking.
The band surrounded its players for the last rendition of the school fight song, “On Wisconsin!” Some Badgers stared silently into the student section. Others muttered a few words barely above a whisper, helmets dangling listlessly by their sides.
“Obviously,” Badgers defensive end Tyler Dippel would say, “it was a sad song to sing at that point.”
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The band played on anyway:
On, Wisconsin! On Wisconsin!
Plunge right through that line!
Run the ball clear down the field
A touchdown sure this time
But Wisconsin’s powerful line and tailbacks had not run the ball particularly well. The Badgers, in turn, hadn’t scored enough touchdowns. Moments earlier, the last-gasp attempt at a miraculous comeback had fluttered into the arms of an opposing cornerback in the other end zone.
And so, the final image of Wisconsin’s senior class before it walked off the field was this off-key misery. There was little left to say. The scoreboard said enough.
Penn State 31, Wisconsin 24.
“I think we envisioned celebrating the end of the year and enjoying senior day,” Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. “So it was really hard.”
Wisconsin’s 26-man senior class, honored during pregame introductions with a hug from head coach Gary Andersen and a flower wreath necklace from his wife, Stacey, finished 25-3 at home over the past four seasons. This loss, however, stung more than any other given the possibilities of grandeur that were at stake.
With a victory, No. 15 Wisconsin would have climbed its way into a potential BCS bowl berth as a top-14 team. Instead, all the chatter about computer rankings, lofty postseason goals and a fourth straight BCS appearance faded into the cold November night. Penn State made sure of that by clobbering and confusing Wisconsin’s defense all over the field and holding strong as the Badgers mounted a comeback attempt.
Now, Wisconsin must await its fate in a lesser-tier bowl — presumably the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on New Year’s Day. It is a nice consolation prize but one the Badgers never wanted.
“It’s tough,” Andersen said. “I think it meant a lot to those kids to be in that spot and have an opportunity to play in the BCS. That puts you into the elite of the elite if you get into that scenario. That’s not going to happen. …
“The way we played today, and the way I coached them obviously, we don’t deserve to have that opportunity. So, it’s gone now.”
What made the defeat especially difficult to swallow for Badgers players was the way in which they lost. This was a Wisconsin defense that ranked sixth nationally in total defense (278.5 yards per game). This was a Wisconsin defense that allowed 179.4 yards passing per game to rank No. 10 in the country.
On Saturday, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed his first eight passes for 159 yards with a touchdown in the first quarter alone. His second pass of the game, a play-action rollout to his right, resulted in a 68-yard touchdown to tight end Adam Breneman less than two minutes in.
It marked the first of four plays that went for at least 52 yards against Wisconsin’s defense. Nittany Lions wide receiver Allen Robinson later caught a 52-yard pass, breaking tacklers off a screen to the left flat. Receiver Eugene Lewis caught a 59-yard touchdown over the top of two Badgers defenders to give Penn State its biggest lead of the game at 31-14 with 12:59 left in the fourth quarter. And tailback Zach Zwinak busted a 61-yard run on a third-down draw play up the middle with less than four minutes remaining.
The Badgers had not surrendered a play of longer than 51 yards all season, giving Penn State the four longest plays from scrimmage against Wisconsin this year.
“It’s really frustrating,” Borland said. “The worst performance of the season by far at the worst time. It’s just terrible.”
There were moments during Saturday’s game in which Wisconsin was so out of sorts that it resembled a team playing its first nonconference game of the season rather than a regular-season finale. On the first drive of the third quarter, for example, Wisconsin’s defense ran plays with nine and 10 men on the field, and one with 12 — which drew an illegal substitution penalty — as Penn State caused confusion by increasing its tempo.
Not surprisingly, the Badgers allowed a 7-yard touchdown pass on that drive to fall behind 21-14.
“At the end of the day, you want to be a part of a defense that’s smart, sharp, lines up, plays really hard and is always consistent,” Badgers safety Dezmen Southward said. “Tonight, that wasn’t us, which is really uncharacteristic of us. That’s something we’ll have to go back to the drawing board and really fix.”
Hackenberg and Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave both finished the game with 339 passing yards. But the difference in each player’s performance was stark. Hackenberg was an efficient 21-for-30 and threw four touchdowns with no interceptions. Stave, meanwhile, completed 29 of 53 passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions — the last pick coming from Penn State’s Ryan Keiser on a Hail Mary attempt from the Nittany Lions’ 41-yard line with one second remaining in the game.
The 53 passes were the most attempts by a Wisconsin quarterback since Randy Wright threw 54 times against Iowa in 1983. The Badgers, whose offensive line was so poor that players switched positions during the game, also failed to have at least one tailback rush for 100 yards for the first time in two months since a loss at Ohio State.
The result of Saturday’s game was particularly surprising given the direction both teams were headed. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 in Big Ten play) had won six straight games by an average of nearly 24 points. Penn State (7-5, 4-4) hadn’t won consecutive games since early September and had no bowl game to play for because of continuing NCAA sanctions against the program.
Despite Wisconsin’s stellar play of late, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said his team was insulted that pundits listed the Badgers as 24-point favorites this week.
“Flat out, I addressed it head on,” O’Brien said. “I thought it was ridiculous. I thought that Wisconsin was a very, very good football team. I thought that they had a great year and thought that we were close in some games and we had shown resilience and we had some good players. …
“I’m not allowed to talk about betting, but it seems like a lot of you guys felt like that was the right line, and you’re wrong.”
Penn State proved O’Brien’s point on the field. And in the end, all Wisconsin players had as they walked off the field were memories of better days and the possibility of salvaging something else out a season that has fallen short of expectations.
“It’s disappointing,” Borland said. “It was supposed to be a special day. We’ve got what we believe is a great senior class. It stinks to go out this way, but we still have one more to play.”