Penn State wins Big Ten Championship

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INDIANAPOLIS, In.– Riding an incredible second-half wave, the Penn State Nittany Lions won their first outright conference title since 1994 with a 38-31 win over the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Things looked dire early for Penn State. It was out of sorts on offense, thanks in no small part to Wisconsin’s defensive front’s consistent pressure on quarterback Trace McSorley. The Nittany Lions also had no answers for the Badgers’ rushing attack.

After earning a spot on the All-Big Ten first-team earlier this week, Wisconsin superstar Corey Clement made sure his presence was felt.

With Wisconsin holding a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter, Clement took a page out of Penn State’s book with the 67-yard touchdown.

Clement finished with 164 yards on 21 carries, his fifth straight 100-yard game and eighth overall this season. It appeared as if Wisconsin would cruise. The Badgers jumped out to a 28-7 lead with 5:15 remaining in the first half, but that’s when the Nittany Lions’ big-play offense came to life.

More specifically, wide receiver Saeed Blacknall gave Penn State hope in the first half with a 40-yard touchdown catch from McSorley on a botched coverage and poor tackling from Wisconsin.

Blacknall’s score helped cut Penn State’s deficit to 28-14 and opened the door just enough to give the team the momentum it needed.

The Blacknall-McSorley combo struck again on the Nittany Lions’ first play of the second half on another busted coverage from Wisconsin’s secondary.

Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton were uncoverable for Penn State. The duo combined for 14 of the team’s 22 receptions and 273 of 384 receiving yards.

Needing to sustain a drive to keep its defense off the field for a few minutes, Wisconsin only managed to gain five yards on five plays before punting.

Penn State wasted no time in tying the score, going 63 yards in eight plays on a drive capped by Saquon Barkley’s first touchdown of the game.

The Nittany Lions’ 28 points at that point marked the second time Wisconsin’s defense allowed more than 20 in a game, with Ohio State scoring 30 in a contest that went into overtime. They would shoot past that mark on their ensuing possession after Wisconsin got a field goal for a 31-28 lead.

McSorley has not gotten enough credit for his performance as Penn State’s quarterback because his numbers don’t jump out at you. He entered Saturday completing 56.3 percent of his passes but was averaging an astounding 9.1 yards per attempt.

Both of those numbers went up after this game, as McSorley finished 22-of-31 (70.1 percent, 12.4-yard average) for 384 yards with four touchdowns and was dropping dimes on his deep throws. His fourth touchdown pass of the game couldn’t have been placed better, as it was right into Barkley’s waiting arms.

In addition to Penn State’s offense picking them apart in the second half, the Badgers defense was making uncharacteristically critical mistakes. Trailing 35-31 midway through the fourth quarter, they were flagged for two penalties, including a 15-yard roughing-the-passer infraction on a 3rd-and-6 play that otherwise would have resulted in a punt.

That drive turned out to be huge for both teams. Penn State settled for a field goal to take a 38-31 lead, but the offense took four minutes and 38 seconds off the clock.

After so much of the focus was on the offense in the second half for its rise from the ashes, Penn State’s defense closed things out.

Wisconsin put together a solid drive that gained 51 yards in 10 plays to get down to the Nittany Lions 24-yard line with just over one minute left.

On 4th-and-1, everyone knew Clement was going to get the ball to attempt to at least keep the drive alive. He tried to bust through the heart of the line but was tripped up just short of the first-down marker to give Penn State possession and seal the victory.

The problem for No. 7 Penn State is it started three slots out of a playoff spot, and the three teams that played conference title games this weekend (Alabama, Clemson, Washington) all won. Ohio State was the other team ranked in the Top Four, and there’s been no indication the committee will leave out the Buckeyes, despite their head-to-head loss against Penn State.

If Clemson or Washington had lost on Saturday, the argument to put Penn State in would be hard to avoid. As it is, the Nittany Lions will likely have to be happy representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.

It’s not a bad consolation prize for a Penn State team that started the season 2-2 and trailed Wisconsin by 21 points late in the second quarter. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst was proud of his team despite the difficult ending.

By: Adam Wells, Featured Columnist