Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien is known for putting his quarterbacks to the test. This afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin freshman Christian Hackenberg aced his final exam for the season in a resounding way. Hackenberg passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns as Penn State (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) upset No. 15 Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) in a 31-24.
Penn State had to hang on to this one though, and they responded well. After seeing a 31-14 lead whittled away to a seven-point advantage late in the fourth quarter, Penn State was faced with a 3rd and 9 after the eighth false start penalty on the offensive line. Rather than try to pass, Penn State kept it on the ground with Wisconsin out of timeouts. A draw play to Zach Zwinak worked beautifully with a 61-yard run up the middle to keep the drive alive and to run some more clock off. Penn State managed to get the game clock down to 35 seconds before asking Sam Ficken to convert a 31-yard field goal, which he missed. That left Wisconsin with just 31 seconds to drive the length of the field. The defense held on with a late stand despite the Badgers moving down field quickly. Ryan Keiser picked off a deep pass to the end zone to clinch the victory.
Penn State’s Allen Robinson turned in another fine performance with 122 yards on nine receptions. Eugene Lewis scored two touchdowns and added 91 yards to compliment Robinson’s day. Wisconsin receiver Jared Abrbederis led the Badgers with 114 yards.
Penn State did a great job holding down Wisconsin’s running game. Melvin Gordon and James White were never able to bust any big runs against a Penn State defense that figured to be vulnerable against the run. Wisconsin tried to get Joel Stave to lead the charge in the passing game but that often backfired on the Badgers.
The loss for Wisconsin takes the Badgers out of the conversation for a BCS at-large invite. Much of the week had centered on a debate between Wisconsin and Michigan State as the potential second Big Ten team in the BCS, but that debate has been silenced. Wisconsin had played in three straight Rose Bowls and had a decent argument to be considered for an at-large bid this season if there was an opening. Wisconsin will still be playing in a January 1 bowl game in the Big Ten line-up and should be a tough opponent for whatever team they get paired up with.
Penn State’s season is over of course despite a second straight winning season under O’Brien. This marks the completion of the second of four seasons serving a postseason ban for the Nittany Lions. O’Brien is now 3-2 against top 25 teams in his short coaching career. Penn State had lost eight straight games against ranked opponents prior to the hiring of O’Brien.