In commemoration of the long-held Twitter tradition of “Throwback Thursday”, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at one of previous head coach Bill O’Brien’s signature wins of 2013 – the season finale at Wisconsin. While the Homecoming victory over Michigan may have been more exciting, perhaps no win was of greater importance to the future of the Nittany Lions’ program, than the triumph in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Nittany Lions entered the final two contests, at home against Nebraska and on the road at Wisconsin, needing a single victory to secure a second consecutive winning season under head coach Bill O’Brien. After a hard-fought affair, the Nittany Lions succumbed to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in OT by a score of 23-20. Leaving Beaver Stadium after the game, I had a sinking feeling that Penn State was going to have a very difficult time winning in Madison the following week. Las Vegas must have concurred, as they installed the Badgers as 24-point favorites. To boot, Wisconsin was also playing for a shot to be a BCS at-large team. All that stood in their way was a Nittany Lions squad eager to show that the loss to Nebraska the previous week would not dampen their resolve to finish the season strong.
Under picture perfect blue skies of a late autumn afternoon, The Nittany Lions let everyone in attendance at Camp Randall Stadium know that they were there for a fight, not just another Senior Day opponent. They took the opening kickoff and marched 79 yards in just four plays. The big play was a Christian Hackenberg to Adam Breneman 68 yard touchdown completion. Sam Ficken tacked on the extra point and Penn State led 7-0 before many of the patrons had even found their seats.
On their second possession, the Nittany Lions once again marched into Wisconsin territory, but were thwarted when a false start penalty forced the Lions to attempt a field goal rather than go for a short 4th down conversion. Consequently, Sam Ficken’s 34-yd field goal was blocked and the Badgers dodged a two-digit deficit.
After absorbing a Penn State left and right combination, Wisconsin settled down and allowed no further scoring in the first quarter. Unfortunately for the Badgers, they were not able to muster much offense against Penn State’s swarming defense. At the end of the first quarter, Penn State led Wisconsin 7-0.
At the outset of the second quarter, Wisconsin was able to string together 3 solid runs by senior RB James White to move the ball deep into Penn State territory. The Badgers capped off the drive with a four-yard touchdown pass from QB Joel Stave to Brian Wozniak. The extra point knotted the score at 7-7.
After a quick 3-and-out for the Penn State offense, Wisconsin got the football back, and like its previous drive, efficiently moved the ball into Nittany Lions real estate. And, again like the previous drive, Joel Stave connected with another of his receivers, this time senior Jeff Duckworth, for a 20-yd touchdown reception.
Now with a score of 14-7, it was starting to look like the Badgers would begin asserting themselves and put away the this pesky Nittany Lions team. But, like they had all season, the young Lions showed their resolve and immediately struck back on their next drive.
With just over 5 minutes remaining in the 2nd quarter, Penn State moved the ball from its own 29 yard line down to the Wisconsin 3 yard line thanks to some tough running from Zack Zwinak and precision passing from Christian Hackenberg. Penn State capped the drive with a 3-yd TD pass from Hackenberg to Geno Lewis. Again, Ficken tacked on the extra point and the score was once again tied at 14-14. Neither team would score with the remaining time in the fist half so both teams headed to the locker room with the score tied at 14-14.
Wisconsin received the opening kickoff of the second half but was unable to move the ball. Just like the Nittany Lions did to open the game, they moved the ball down the field and capped it off with a Christian Hackenberg touchdown pass to his third different receiver, tight end Jesse James. Once again, Ficken converted the extra point for a 21-14 lead, and Nittany Lion fans were starting to get the feeling that their young team may just be able to pull off the improbable upset.
Sam Ficken would go on to add a 28-yd field goal to increase the Penn State lead over Wisconsin to 24-14 as the game moved into the fourth and final quarter.
The young Nittany Lions seemed unfazed by the big stage they were on and it showed. Two plays into the fourth quarter, cornerback Trevor Williams intercepted Stave and crushed a Badger drive. To add insult to injury, three plays later, Hackenberg connected with Geno Lewis on a 59-yd post pattern. It was their second hook up of the evening, and it gave Penn State a gigantic 31-14 lead, but most of the fourth quarter remained.
A team like Wisconsin, who was highly rated and had a shot at a BCS berth, was not just going to roll over and allow a younger team to come into their stadium and put it to them without putting up a fight. And, like you might imagine, the Badgersstarted going on the offensive, but the PSU defense was not about to cave with the pressure.
Wisconsin moved the ball into Penn State territory ,but a huge fourth-down sack by Anthony Zettel stymied the Wisconsin drive. The Badgers were undeterred as they regained possession with 8:07 left to play. Matriculating the ball down the field on the right arm of quarterback Joel Stave, the Badgers were finally able to punch it in with a 5-yd pass to Wozniak. The extra point drew Wisconsin within 31-21 with just over 5:30 minutes remaining.
Wisconsin would add a Jack Russell 48-yd field goal to draw within a touchdown of Penn State 31-24, but that is all the further they would get as Ryan Keiser intercepted a late Hail Mary attempt and Penn State held on to win 31-24.
From beginning to end, this game had it all, but most importantly, what this game showed was the true heart and testament of the 2013 Nittany Lions squad. It also embodied everything that Nittany Lions fans had come to respect about the intensity of the head coach.
Due to the NCAA restrictions, the Wisconsin win was the final game for the 2013 Nittany Lions, but what a way to end the season! Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg finished the game with 339 passing yards and 4 touchdowns, while Zack Zwinak rushed for 115 yards and leading receiver Allen Robinson finished with 8 catches for 122 yards (Robinson would finish three receptions shy of 100 for the season). Most importantly though, the Nittany Lions squad finished the season with their second consecutive winning season under head coach Bill O’Brien.
Follow Corey Hunter on Twitter (@realhuntdog23)