MADISON, Wis. — A bright future for Penn State emerged on a cool, crisp day in the Midwest.
Strong-armed freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg figures to only improve for the Nittany Lions.
Hackenberg played with the poise and touch of a seasoned veteran, throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns, and Penn State pounced on a slew of Badgers blunders before holding off a late rally to upset No. 14 Wisconsin 31-24 on Saturday.
“He really stepped up in a big way, and words can’t describe how thankful I am to that guy,” said offensive lineman and senior leader John Urschel.
An up-and-down season — from the 20-point loss at Indiana to the overtime win over Michigan — ended on a high note in the most unlikely of places, at Camp Randall Stadium on Senior Day against a Wisconsin team on the cusp of eligibility for an at-large berth in a Bowl Championship Series game.
Say goodbye to the BCS, Badgers.
“That’s not going to happen and so we’ll move forward. Such is life,” coach Gary Andersen said. “The way we played today and the way I coached them, obviously, we don’t deserve to have that opportunity. It’s gone now.”
Two more freshmen had big days for Penn State (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten). Eugene Lewis finished with 91 yards and two touchdowns on three catches, including a 59-yarder with 13 minutes to go to give the Nittany Lions a 31-14 lead. Adam Breneman had 78 yards on three receptions, including a 68-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown that set the tone for the day on the game’s opening drive.
The Nittany Lions secured a statement win against a team that had been dominant all year at home. They were listed as 24-point underdogs among odds-makers, and prognosticators consistently predicted a Badgers blowout.
Coach Bill O’Brien made sure his players knew about their underdog status all week. A sizable chip was planted on the Nittany Lions’ collective shoulders.
“I’m not allowed to talk about that even though it seems like a lot of you guys thought it was the right line,” O’Brien told reporters after the game. “You’re wrong.”
Joel Stave was 29 of 53 for 339 yards and three touchdowns for Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2), though Penn State capitalized on three second-half interceptions, turning one into Lewis’ long TD.
The Badgers scored 10 points in a span of 1:25 of the fourth quarter, capped by a 48-yard field goal by Jack Russell with 4:13 left to get within a score. Sam Ficken’s 31-yard field-goal try went wide right with 31 seconds left to give the Badgers one more chance.
But a Hail Mary attempt by Stave was intercepted by Ryan Keiser in the end zone with 1 second left.
“Both elation and relief,” linebacker Mike Hull said in describing the moment. “We made it closer than we had to, but we got the win and that’s all that matters.”
Penn State clinched a winning season and did it on the road, where they had struggled all year in Big Ten play. That’s quite an accomplishment for a program that’s typically dressed about 60 recruited scholarship players as a result of NCAA sanctions resulting from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
O’Brien’s team can’t go to a bowl game because of the sanctions. But Penn State will nevertheless ride into the offseason on a high note for a second straight year after a win over the Badgers. Penn State beat Wisconsin 24-21 in an overtime thriller to end the 2012 season.
The Badgers only have themselves to blame. They were uncharacteristically prone to mental errors and mistakes.
“I can’t sit back and say we had a bad week of practice, can’t sit back and say I didn’t feel like we were prepared,” Andersen said. “I’m going to say it again, I give a lot of credit to Penn State.”
A high pass from Stave off the fingertips of Jared Abbrederis was picked off by Trevor Williams, who returned it 33 yards to the Penn State 38. Three plays later, Hackenberg let go a deep pass after absorbing a hit from Brendan Kelly that landed in the arms of a streaking Lewis over double coverage for a touchdown and 31-14 lead in the fourth.
A Wisconsin defense that hadn’t allowed a play longer than 51 yards entering Saturday allowed an astounding four for at least 52 against Penn State.
Hackenberg was 13 of 16 for 221 yards and two touchdowns alone in the first half, the second coming to a wide-open Lewis from 3 yards.