By Aidan Wilkins | @wilkins_power
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — It was a tale of two halves. Wisconsin was on a meteoric rise in the first half of the Big Ten Football Championship Game, only to burn up in the atmosphere in the second. After a 28-point first half, the Badgers saw their 14-point halftime lead vanish.
After a first half of dominating Penn State with their trademark power run game and stingy defense, the Badgers faltered in the second half, scoring just three points and allowing the Nittany Lions to hang 24 on one of the top defensive units in the nation. The result was a shocking 38-31 loss to Penn State that prevented Wisconsin from winning its fourth Big Ten championship in seven seasons and denied the Badgers a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin began the game as well as Head Coach Paul Chryst could have asked for, with the Badger run game gashing the Penn State defense. A suffocating defensive effort temporarily shut down a prolific Penn State offense. The Badgers appeared to be on their way to Pasadena – or possibly the College Football Playoff — with a seven-game winning streak.
Then, everything changed. That Badger run game that ravaged the Penn State defense for 164 yards in the first half? They mustered just 77 yards in the second half. The Wisconsin defense that came in allowing 13.7 points per game, ranked third in the nation? The Badgers allowed Nittany Lion quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley to lead an effort that carved up the Badgers for 28 points in the second half.
While the rush defense held strong throughout the second half, the big passing plays by the Penn State offense plagued the Wisconsin defense for the entire second half. McSorley completed second-half touchdown passes of 70 and 18 yards. His 384 passing yards and four touchdown passes were Big Ten Championship Game records.
“We didn’t do enough to make McSorley uncomfortable, and they made plays and offensively there were a couple of possessions where we didn’t get points out of them,” Chryst said.
The game began with the Badgers forcing Penn State to punt after a three-and-out. This quick defensive stop led to a quintessential Wisconsin drive, with a 1-yard touchdown rush by junior full back Austin Ramesh capping off a 14 play, 81-yard drive that consumed 8:04.
On Wisconsin’s next drive, things progressed much more quickly as the Badgers scored in just two plays, as senior running back Corey Clement attacked the left side of the Penn State defense for a 67-yard dash, the fourth longest touchdown run in Big Ten Championship history, to put the Badgers up 14-0. Clement rushed for 164 yards, the seventh time in the last eight games that he has exceeded 100 yards. His career total of 3,021 yards is 12th highest in Wisconsin history.
Wisconsin appeared to take control of the game with its defense, as sophomore linebacker Ryan Connelly picked up an errant snap and fumble by Penn State, and spun by a would-be tackler for a 12-yard touchdown for a 21-7 lead. This was only the third defensive touchdown scored in the history of the Big Ten Championship.
After Penn State turned the ball over near mid field after failing to convert a 4th and 2, the Badgers orchestrated another tough offense series that saw them go 42 yards in just five plays, ending with a Dare Ogunbowale scamper to the right for a 7-yard score. This gave the Badgers their biggest lead of the game, 28-7.
Wisconsin gained 164 yards on 26 carries in the first half against a Penn State defense that had allowed an average of 179 per game. The defense also held up its end of the bargain, holding Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, to just 39 yards rushing in the first half.
And yet the Badgers had one last chance, driving from their 25-yard line to the Penn State 24, where they faced a fourth down with a yard to go with 1:05 to play. Clement, whose 164 rushing yards ranks fourth in Big Ten Championship history, was stopped at the line of scrimmage by Penn State cornerback Grant Haley.
“As far as the last play goes, it’s just all about who wanted it more,” Clement said. “And it’s one yard. Either got it or didn’t. But I’m pretty sure that everybody on the field laid it out on the line for that last play.”
The Badgers appear to be headed for a Cotton Bowl matchup with Western Michigan. This loss will likely hang with the Badgers for some time, as they held the possibility of a Big Ten Championship within their grasp after an electric first half, only to see it slip away in the final minutes.
“But this one is going to sting for a while,” Beigel said. It’s going to take a while to get the sour taste out of your mouth.”
While the first half was a tale of triumph and execution, the tale of the second half will likely leave Wisconsin wondering what went wrong in a disappointing loss that saw their dreams of a Big Ten Championship disappear.