On Sept. 24, Penn State was 2-2 on the season, 0-1 in Big Ten play after a 49-10 undressing by Michigan in Ann Arbor. Their Big Ten title hopes were left for dead. As we know, they managed to rally and win the Big Ten East.
And then, with 5:15 left in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions trailed 28-7 and their chances of actually winning the game were again left for dead.
But the Cardiac Cats rallied. Again. The seventh-ranked Lions closed the game on a 31-3 run to race past No. 6 Wisconsin for a 38-31 Big Ten Championship victory.
Of course, this win means much more than that. At 11-2 on the season, winners of nine in a row and winners of college football’s best conference, the question now becomes whether the College Football Playoff selection committee chooses the Lions over 11-1 Ohio State or Pac-12 champion Washington on Sunday.
But first, the comeback.
Penn State simply could not get out of its own way — or get Wisconsin out of its way… or get in Wisconsin’s way, for that matter — over the game’s first 25 minutes. The Badgers opened by forcing two three-and-outs and launching two long touchdown drives to grab a 14-0 lead a dozen minutes into the game. After a McSorley touchdown pass put Penn State on the board, the Nittany Lions allowed an errant snap to be returned for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
James Franklin elected to go for a fourth-and-short in his own territory on the ensuing possession and was rebuffed. Wisconsin again capitalized on the mistake to grab a 28-7 lead with 5:15 remaining in the first half. Penn State again failed on a fourth-and-short near midfield on the next possession, but this time the Badgers failed to cash in. And that proved costly.
Because that failure to land the death blow allowed Penn State’s Cardiac Cats persona to awaken.
The Lions’ comeback started when McSorley hit Saeed Blacknall for a 40-yard touchdown catch with 58 seconds left in the half to pull within a more manageable 28-14 deficit at the break.
After Wisconsin missed a field goal to open the second half, McSorley answered by finding Blacknall for a 70-yard scoring strike on the very next play. Then Penn State tied the game on its next touch as Saquon Barkley punched in a 1-yard score at the 4:22 mark of the third quarter.
Wisconsin re-gained the lead with a 23-yard Andrew Endicott chip shot, but only after Bart Houston missed what would have been a walk-in touchdown to tight end Troy Fumagalli on 2nd-and-8 from the 10-yard line.
Given the opportunity to take the lead, Penn State took full advantage, marching 81 yards in only four plays as Barkley hauled in an 18-yard wheel route from McSorley.
McSorley finished the game hitting 22-of-31 passes for 384 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions — against a defense that came in allowing eight touchdowns while swiping 21 interceptions. Compared to Houston’s numbers — 16-of-21 for 174 yards — quarterback play proved to be the difference in the game. McSorley’s play allowed Penn State to win a game in which it was out-rushed 241-51.
Wisconsin punted on its next touch, and Penn State missed its chance to deliver a knockout punch, instead settling for a 24-yard Tyler Davis field goal with 5:14 to play in the game.
Wisconsin would need a touchdown to force overtime, while Penn State would need a stop to complete its 21-point comeback. The Badgers moved to the Penn State 24, but, facing a 4th-and-1, Corey Clement was stuffed for no gain.
Penn State expired the final 58 seconds and secured the largest comeback ever in a Power 5 conference championship game.