We were all doubters. Jared doubted in his preview. Adam, Dan and I doubted in this week's podcast. The rest of the BSD staff doubted in the BSD roundtable. For all of us, it wasn't a matter of if Penn State would lose to Wisconsin--it was a matter of how much. And that belief wasn't unfounded; this squad was 0-3 in true road games, with losses to Indiana and Minnesota, and wasn't even in the game versus the only other ranked opponent it faced--on the wrong end of a massive beat down in Columbus.
I'm sure I can speak for all of us when I say, I've never been more ecstatic to be proven so wrong.
I came into the game today hoping against all hope that PSU would look competitive. Hoping that we wouldn't lose by more than three scores. I mean, take a look at these stats--not exactly encouraging, right? But Bill O'Brien laughs in the face of your statistics. Here's how Penn State fared versus Wisconsin's year to date numbers:
|Wisconsin YTD||Wisconsin vs PSU|
|Total Yards offense||489.3||459|
|Passing yards offense||191.5||339|
|Rushing yards offense||297.8||120|
|3rd downs defense||29.30%||38.46%|
|Total Yards defense||278.5||465|
|Passing yards defense||179.4||339|
|Rushing yards defense||99.1||126|
Wisconsin gave up 36 points all season at home, TOTAL, before today's game. Penn State scored 31 today. Take that, doubters (and yes, I include myself in that).
And, unlike Cory Giger, I'm going to give credit where it's due. No, Wisconsin didn't play well today--but Penn State did. They out-executed Wisconsin when it counted. They had the Badgers on their heels, defensively, for much of the game; Wisconsin looked like it hadn't game planned well, or watched film on our offense, for much of the first three quarters. One of the themes of this season has been inconsistency, and the up and down roller coaster ride of this year culminated in good execution on both sides of the ball--special teams miscues, of course, notwithstanding (though, thankfully, none backbreakers, and none of the TD variety).
This was the first game that Penn State played without a turnover, and it showed. PSU notched not just the longest play, yardage wise, that this top-ten Wisconsin defense had given up all-season--they recorded the top three.
This was one of very few games that Penn state played this year in which Allen Robinson had no touchdowns, and it makes me much more confident in the future--not that Christian Hackenberg didn't get Robinson his touches, as A Rob understandably led all receivers with 122 yards on eight catches. But he spread it out well, got his tight ends involved, throwing to seven different Nittany Lions and notching four TDs with no picks.
The biggest beneficiary of Hack's increased willingness to check down was undoubtedly sophomore Geno Lewis, who had a career night of 91 yards on three catches and two TDs. As mentioned above, as well, the three starting TEs (Kyle Carter, Jesse James, and Adam Breneman) combined for seven catches and two TDs themselves; and taking pressure off of the run game was Zach Zwinak, who averaged a whopping 5.2 ypc on 22 carries--including a season-long 61 yarder to nearly ice the game with two minutes to go.
It was the most complete offensive game we've seen all year, and it wasn't even close.
Defensively, of course, you never want to see your team give up over 400 yards of offense, but...and there's always a but. But there were three takeaways, and they stopped the Wisconsin offense when it mattered, and where it mattered--the scoreboard. The Badgers came into today averaging over 36 points per game. The Penn State defense allowed them to score only 24.
The Badger O-line averaged a sack per game. I can't find the exact stats, but I know that Joel Stave was sacked at least twice--and he was on his ass at the end of nearly every pass play, with pressure being generate from all across the defensive line. It's been a few months since a Penn State defense has been able to apply pressure to a quarterback without creative blitzes--yet that's exactly what happened this week, with Kyle Baublitz and Anthony Zettel and CJ Olaniyan in Stave's face on nearly every play, getting into his head and continually causing him to overthrow wide-open eighth year senior Jared Abbredaris.
The Penn State defense often stacked the box, holding the Wisconsin offense to less than half of its normal yardage on the ground, daring Stave to beat them through the air. He kind of did, sometimes, but not when it counted--and that proved to be a successful game plan. It worked--he had 53 pass attempts (6.39 per attempt), contrasted with Hack's same number of yards in almost half the attempts. He was rattled, and he threw three picks, including the game clincher to Ryan Keiser--Keiser's second this season.
This was perhaps the most complete game we've seen this year; even special teams, which weren't that special, were by no means the obvious liability they were last week. Yes, Sam Ficken was 1 of 3 on field goals, and nearly had two XPs blocked. But, frankly, I'd rather take that than the blown kickoff coverages of the last two weeks, and I like the confidence O'Brien showed in Ficken. The way that Penn State was controlling the game from start to finish, the game shouldn't have come down to Ficken's right foot. And it rightfully didn't.
I don't do grades like Devon; if I did, I'd probably be criticized for being overly generous. So be it. I'm excited. Expletive-filled, couch-jumping, screaming my love to the world excited.
One of my friends (you know her as PSU Girl) tweeted that this game reminded her of 2004 Michigan State. You may or may not remember that game; that game was right after the Indiana goal line stand, the game after the game that everyone points to as the turnaround from the dark years. PSU went from that goal line stand back home, on senior day, taking on a 5-6 MSU squad that, on paper, was worlds better than the Penn State squad it was facing. And the Nittany Lions dominated them in every way that counted--especially in terms of turnovers, and went on to win 31-13, ending their season on a decisive victory. And then we all know what happened next.
The 2013 season is over. We spent all season seeing glimpses of where this program was headed, what it could be in seasons to come. Today, we saw more of it than I'd even hoped. And I, for one, couldn't be more excited about what the future of Penn State football is going to be. And what it is.
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