It was an early season Big Ten slugfest. And in the end, it was No. 16 Penn State that outlasted No. 12 Wisconsin, 16-10, in a dramatic finish.
It came down to two defensive stops from the Nittany Lions. The first was a goal line stand.
Penn State took the lead with 9:17 to play, but a missed extra point from Jordan Stout loomed large as the Nittany Lions’ lead was 16-10, not 17-10.
On the ensuing possession, Wisconsin drove deep into Penn State territory. How deep? The Badgers had first-and-goal from the PSU 1-yard line following a fantastic third-down catch from Danny Davis.
But on the next play, a Wisconsin fumble pushed the Badgers back to the 8-yard line. Three plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the 8, Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz was picked off by Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker.
Brisker returned the INT out toward midfield and put the ball back in the hands of the PSU offense. PSU was able to take some time off the clock, but Wisconsin still had time.
The Badgers would advance all the way to the Penn State 25, but another Mertz interception sealed Wisconsin’s fate and allowed the Nittany Lions to escape Camp Randall with a hard-fought victory.
Penn State's defense made the plays that mattered
Wisconsin completely controlled the first half, but you wouldn’t know it from the scoreboard.
The Badgers twice drove the ball into the red zone. On the other side, Penn State mustered only 43 yards of offense. Still, the game was scoreless going into halftime.
While Wisconsin’s defense completely smothered the PSU offense, the Badgers had some success on the ground. However, both of UW’s long drives stalled. First, Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie blocked a 25-yard Badgers field goal attempt. Wisconsin’s next drive ended with a Mertz fumble inside the 10-yard line.
In the second half, Penn State’s passing attack finally found some success.
After Wisconsin opened the third quarter with a punt, Penn State needed just four plays and 55 seconds to go 86 yards and take a 7-0 lead. Sean Clifford, PSU’s much-maligned quarterback, found star receiver Jahan Dotson wide open behind the defense for a 49-yard touchdown.
Wisconsin, though, quickly responded and tied the game 7-7 with a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a Chez Mellusi touchdown run.
It was a back-and-forth affair from then on out. Penn State’s Stout missed a short field goal later in the third, and Wisconsin took its first lead, 10-7, with 13:36 to play.
Penn State would tie it at 10-10 shortly thereafter and eventually take the lead for good via a two-yard Noah Cain touchdown run with 9:17 to play. Cain, back after missing almost all of 2020 with an injury, made several big plays in the second half to pick up key first downs. He finished the afternoon with 48 rushing yards and 27 receiving yards on five receptions — and they all were impactful.
The bigger impact was made by Dotson, who was able to find himself open deep on several occasions. While Clifford connected with him on gains of 49 and 42 yards, he also missed Dotson (5 catches, 102 yards) on what would have been a 70-yard touchdown late in the third.
That was a missed connection that looked like it could cost the Nittany Lions, but the defense’s stellar play gave Clifford and the offense several more shots to take the lead. Eventually, that’s just what happened and the defense — led by Brisker, Ebiketie and several others — sealed the deal in the end.
What does this mean for Penn State?
Penn State's 2020 season was a flat-out disappointment. The Nittany Lions went 4-5 but lost their first five games, including a Week 1 heartbreaker at Indiana. They weren't going to let that happen this time around.
That doesn't mean this was some flawless performance. The defense was fantastic, no doubt, but the offense has a long way to go. Clifford missed quite a few throws, and often had pressure in his face. There wasn't much room to run either. Other than a 34-yard run from Cain, Penn State running backs combined for 11 yards on 11 attempts.
Escaping Camp Randall with a victory is a heck of a confidence boost for a team that clearly has a lot of talent. It's hard not to wonder if a close loss — like the one at Indiana last year — could have had a lingering effect. Instead, the win could serve as a momentum boost.