Phillips’ late-game play bright spot in loss

If there is another team in college football that has endured more hard-luck losses this season than Wisconsin, you’d be hard-pressed to find it. On Saturday, Wisconsin dropped a heart-stopping 24-21 overtime decision against Penn State, marking the Badgers’ second straight overtime loss.

Wisconsin lost, 21-14, in overtime last week to Ohio State. And two games before that, Michigan State edged Wisconsin 16-13 in overtime.

The Badgers’ losses this season have now come by three, three, three, seven and three points. Amazing.

Here are five things we learned from Wisconsin’s regular-season finale:

1. Montee Ball is finally at the top of the touchdown record book.

Wisconsin’s star running back had been eyeing the all-time NCAA FBS touchdown record since he announced his intention to return in January for his senior season. It didn’t come as easily as expected, but he established a new mark on Saturday.

Ball scored on a 17-yard touchdown run around the right side during the first quarter for his 79th career touchdown. The score surpassed the previous mark of 78 established by Miami (Ohio) running back Travis Prentice in 1999.

Considering Ball had just three touchdowns through four games after a slow start, the record is even more memorable. He tallied 15 touchdowns over the final eight regular season games.

Ball finished Saturday’s game with 27 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown. He has 1,528 rushing yards this season and two more games to cap his illustrious college career.

2. Curt Phillips can lead a two-minute drive.

Wisconsin fans will remember the Badgers lost overtime games against Leaders Division rivals Ohio State and Penn State. But what they may forget is how Wisconsin even made it to overtime.

Phillips, the Badgers’ fifth-year quarterback, demonstrated great poise down the stretch in both games. Against Ohio State, Phillips connected with tight end Jacob Pedersen on a five-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with five seconds left in regulation.

Against Penn State, Wisconsin took over at its own 34-yard-line with 4:04 remaining in the game, needing a touchdown to keep the contest alive. Phillips engineered a 14-play, 68-yard drive that included converting two third-down throws.

Phillips hit receiver Jordan Frederick for 14 yards on third-and-eight. He later found Kenzel Doe for 10 yards on third-and-three. Phillips capped the drive with a four-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Duckworth with 18 seconds remaining.

3. Even without Chris Borland, Wisconsin’s linebackers were stellar.

For the second straight game, Borland didn’t play because of a hamstring injury. That meant his 82 tackles, nine tackles for loss, six pass deflections, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles this season were on the sideline in a gray hooded sweatshirt and knit Wisconsin skullcap.

But somehow, the Badgers played just as good without him.

Sophomore linebacker Derek Landisch, making his first career start in place of Borland at middle linebacker, registered a career-high 11 tackles. His previous high was five against Indiana earlier this season.

Junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong also tallied a career high with 12 tackles, surpassing the 10 he had against Ohio State the previous week. And senior Mike Taylor recorded 11 tackles, marking the second time this season that Wisconsin’s three linebackers all notched at least 10 tackles in the same game.

Granted, Penn State ran 82 plays to Wisconsin’s 68 plays, but you’ve still got to make the tackles when they’re available.

4. Kicking woes hurt the Badgers again.

Badgers kicker Kyle French has endured an up-and-down season, and it took another downward turn on Saturday. He missed a 44-yard field goal in overtime wide left that would have tied the game and forced a second extra session. It certainly was no easy kick given the circumstances, but it still hurt.

Earlier this season, French was benched from both kickoff duties and field goal attempts because of his inconsistency. Last week, Badgers coach Bret Bielema opted to punt against Ohio State rather than have French try a 47-yard field goal.

Bielema said last week that the edge of French’s range is right around the 25-yard-line, which is a 42-yard kick. Anything beyond that, and Bielema weighs the pros and cons of the attempt. But on Saturday, he had no choice because Wisconsin faced a fourth-and-12 situation.

For the season, French is now 10 for 15 on field goal attempts. His long is 46 yards.

5. Wisconsin has backed its way into the Big Ten title game.

We all knew this was possible when the NCAA levied sanctions that included postseason bans against both Ohio State and Penn State. Given that two of the top teams in the Leaders Division were ineligible for the Big Ten championship, most assumed Wisconsin would find its way into the title game.

But who saw the Badgers making it with this kind of record?

Wisconsin, at 7-5 overall and just 4-4 in the Big Ten, finishes conference play four games behind undefeated Ohio State and two games behind Penn State. It’s almost laughable to think of a third place team playing for a championship, but here we are.

Now, Wisconsin must regroup from three overtime losses in four games and get ready to play Nebraska for the right to go to the Rose Bowl.

It’s certainly been a wild season at Wisconsin. And it’s not over yet. One more victory, and the Badgers are headed to Pasadena for a third straight season.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.