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118 Random Thoughts on Wisconsin, Indianapolis, and the Big Ten’s Finest Hour

Random musings on an unforgettable Saturday in the Midwest

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Wisconsin vs Penn State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

On the evening of Saturday, December 3rd, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Wisconsin Badgers engaged in a contest of American football at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana for the championship of the Big Ten Conference. After a disastrous first half, the Nittany Lions stormed back from a 21-point deficit to win the conference title, 38-31. I have some thoughts, which are randomly set forth below.

  1. I have to say, I’ve watched this game about 5 times. I’ve watched BTN’s The Journey now, as well. Each time, I think I find it just as enjoyable as I did the first time.
  2. Well, that whole deal was just ridiculous.
  3. Not just the game, but really the weekend as a whole. Maybe mine in particular. Let’s recap.
  4. My wife and I were originally scheduled to be in Washington, D.C. last weekend for an event. We would be leaving midday Saturday to get there in time for the game. After work, around 7:30 p.m. on Friday, I walked in the door to find bags packed and an envelope on top that contained two boarding passes and tickets to the Big Ten Championship.
  5. That was probably the coolest surprise I’ve ever gotten.
  6. tl;dr. My wife is awesome.
  7. As it turns out, flights to Indianapolis are unreasonably priced on short notice. That's one of the primary flaws with this system - encouraging people to travel to a neutral site and making significant travel plans in less than a week is difficult and pricey, particularly those schools that live on the outer edges of a conference footprint. I don’t know how to fix that, but it is what it is.
  8. Instead of flying to Indianapolis, we hopped a flight from Newark to Chicago (Midway) and made the three hour drive to Hoosiertown USA. Note to all those traveling from NY/NJ metropolitan area - this was by far the most cost effective option, and flying into Midway was a pleasant and uneventful experience.
  9. The drive from Chicago to Indy was, in a word, straight. For miles and miles and miles. Straight, 70 MPH speed limit, few cars, and surrounded by wheat, soy bean, and corn fields. The signs did tell me that Iron Skillet had the “best buffet on the highway,” which, admittedly, didn't seem like much of an honor.
  10. The Big Ten does its championship game right, and a lot of that has to do with the location. Indianapolis has structured itself to be a great conference town. Once you get there and drop your bags, you're within a 5-minute walk of restaurants, bars, the convention center, the basketball arena, and Lucas Oil Stadium.
  11. But let’s not sleep on the Big Ten, either. The conferenced staffed its event with solid, helpful people and put together a great “Fan Fest” that had plenty of activities for both children and adults. It was a nice combination.
  12. Above all else, the entire weekend featured a heavy Penn State fan presence that dominated downtown Indianapolis. For most of Saturday, the crowd at Fan Fest, the line for the pep rally, and the outdoor tailgate was close to 3:1 Penn Staters.
  13. There was some question as to whether that was just a function of distance. Plenty of Nittany Lions showed up on Friday night or early Saturday morning because they had to fly in from the East Coast. It’s only 4 hours to the Wisconsin state line and 5.5 hours from Madison, a do-able drive, if not a preferable one.
  14. Still the line for the pep rally was remarkable. We walked into the convention center to get in line at 3:03 p.m., and the line for wrist bands, which ostensibly formed just three minutes earlier, wrapped around all hallways of the building.
  15. “We Are!” chants reverberated through the halls, Blue Band members were voraciously cheered as they walked around casually carrying their instruments, and the few Wisconsin fans that were there looked like they had no idea what they had gotten themselves into.
  16. We always talk about wanting players who score to “act like they’ve been there before.” Clearly, Wisconsin fans have this down pat, since they have actually been here before. Good fans - solid, knowledgeable, dressed in team colors and jerseys without a hint of embarrassment (as if grown men and women shouldn’t own jerseys...)
  17. As time ticked away toward kickoff, the crowd began to even out a bit. Still, a glance around the stadium made it clear that this was a 65/35 Penn State split. Little did we know how much this team might need a home crowd.
  18. What a cool venue. Everything about Lucas Oil Stadium was on point. It’s attractive, gives plenty of nods to team history, and has the amenities that make watching a game live a good experience.
  19. It’s surprising to hear that the building fits only 66,000 people. The acoustics were obviously a priority during the build. The place is loud.
  20. All I’ve ever wanted in life was to hear Gus Johnson call a Penn State football game. I’m glad we waited this long, because this is the perfect team for Gus to go crazy over.
  21. Boy, did he deliver. Kudos to Joel Klatt as well for the commentary. I thought they were the best announce team we’ve seen all year.
  22. The fact that I just complimented Joel Klatt should surprise you, since I have very little love lost for him. Nothing personal against Joel, but the guy was the quarterback for Colorado in 2005. All of my hopes of Penn State getting to the Rose Bowl to play for the BCS National Championship hinged on Klatt’s arm...
  23. And, of course, the Buffs were blown out by Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, 70-3.
  24. That’s probably why I wasn’t surprised to see Washington lay a beating on Colorado in the Pac 12 title game this year. Sadly, I’ve seen this movie before.
  25. Using Lavar Arrington and Russell Wilson in the pre-game videos was a nice touch.
  26. Having the parents of Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler on the field for the coin toss was as well.
  27. This crowd was hot early on. It came across well on the broadcast, but there was a vibe in that building that was different.
  28. This is the first time since the ‘87 Fiesta Bowl that Penn State played for something tangible against a team that wasn’t just playing spoiler.
  29. Think about it - in the Orange Bowl, Penn State was playing Florida State for the Orange Bowl trophy, but most importantly, the Nittany Lions were playing an 8-5 team to justify their #3 national ranking. The ‘Noles were essentially playing spoiler.
  30. The last three times Penn State won the Big Ten, it clinched at the end of the regular season when there was no championship game. In those years, Penn State played 5-6 Michigan State (1994), 5-6 Michigan State (2005), and 9-4 Michigan State (2008). That 2008 game was the closest we came to having an actual championship on the line - MSU could have clinched a share of the conference title by beating the Nittany Lions.
  31. This was just different. Two teams who had won the right to play for the conference title met at a neutral site. The champion won the conference outright and an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl.
  32. Interesting, though, that Penn State, at 8-1 in conference, would have won the Rose Bowl’s autobid this year over 8-1 Ohio State, 7-2 Michigan, and 7-2 Wisconsin under the Big Ten’s traditional setup.
  33. Honestly, this felt better.
  34. Ugly first series from the Nittany Lions, compounded by Saquon Barkley limping off after his first carry.
  35. I don’t care what anyone says, Barkley was far more hurt than anyone let on during the week leading up to the game. He had a solid outing and got more comfortable in the second half as things went along, but he was in and out and bouncing around gingerly on the sideline.
  36. You can find lots of clips of James Franklin talking about giving all out effort for 6 seconds, the average length of a play. Barkley personifies that. It’s tough to know he’s hurt during the course of a play, since he looks so explosive. Still, you know he’s banged up when you see him get up after being piled on by multiple tacklers.
  37. He’s going to need the next several weeks to heal up, that’s for sure.
  38. McSorley got planted on that third down, which worried everyone in my section.
  39. Wisconsin certainly lived up to its billing as a great defense at the outset of the game, which had to make any Penn Stater nervous.
  40. Boy, that first Wisconsin drive was Pitt-esque, wasn’t it? Maybe it wasn’t 99 yards, but 14 plays for 81 yards and a score, 12 of which were runs, really hamemred the point home.
  41. That personal foul on Manny Bowen was weak. That ended up being repaid later by the officials, but it was still stupid.
  42. I mentioned this on Twitter during the game - Wisconsin moves slightly before the snap of every play. They are literally never set.
  43. They also hold like crazy.
  44. Here’s the thing - Wisconsin is so good at what they do, and they play so much to type, that it’s not surprising they get some leeway from the officials.
  45. I’m not complaining about that, necessarily. I’m more envious.
  46. Wisconsin’s line is enormous. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Penn State offensive line, even the best of them, look like that. They look like the size of a pro line, and they just lean on opposing defenses and mash them until they crumble. It’s impressive.
  47. I’d like to take a moment to emphasize just how much I like Paul Chryst, by the way. Seems like a solid guy who doesn’t care about what’s trendy in offense. He plays his way, and he’s really good at it.
  48. The results speak for themselves. He built the Pitt team that Pat Narduzzi now takes credit for, he was the architect of the Wisconsin running offenses that dominated the back end of the last decade, and now he’s won 20 games in two years at Wisconsin. Not bad.
  49. I look at our stable of running backs - Saquon Barkley, Andre Robinson, Miles Sanders, Mark Allen - and think, “Man, any of those guys is good enough to start at a lot of places.”
  50. Then I look at Wisconsin’s stable of running backs and wonder which depth chart is better, because Corey Clement, Bradrick Shaw, and Dare Ogunbowale can flat out ball.
  51. Bart Houston has a great name, and I can’t figure out how’s he’s not quarterbacking a team in Texas because of it.
  52. Seriously, isn’t this like how Colt McCoy was obviously destined to play quarterback for Texas? Sometimes things are just supposed to be a certain way.
  53. I wasn’t particularly impressed with Houston, though. It’s not a shock that he’s completing 60% of his passes if nearly half of his completions are outlets to Clement and Ogunbowale, and Troy Fumagalli is acting as a release valve as well.
  54. The first touchdown was frustrating, but coupling it with two 3-and-outs meant that the natives were beginning to get restless.
  55. It’s no surprise then that Clement’s 67-yard touchdown run to the outside created a real sense of panic in the crowd.
  56. Still, being down 14-0 isn’t the same panic inducing moment with this Penn State team than it might have been last year, or the year before, or in 2011.
  57. Or in 2003 or 2004.
  58. The offense finally looked like the offense again on the next drive - a 20+ yard run from Barkley, a 15+ yard reception from DaeSean Hamilton, and a long touchdown to Mike Gesicki had Penn State feeling a lot better about themselves.
  59. The two Wisconsin fans in front of us (and the only two in a 3 section area, from the looks of it) were shocked at the success of that drive. They hadn’t seen anything like that all year. A sign of things to come.
  60. Keegan Michael Key was about 30 feet from us in one of the luxury suite boxes. There are lots of celebrities that are nominally sports fans. He is not one of them. That guy was as intense a fan as any - jumping up and down, screaming on defense, leaping in the air for touchdowns (like this one), and leading a “We Are!” chant with our section.
  61. The near turnover on the next series was the first of a series in which Wisconsin got every single lucky bounce during the game. Third and 1, ball comes loose, Penn State recovers, but the line jumped into the neutral zone.
  62. Still, I’ll take that punt any day.
  63. That’s when the wheels came off.
  64. Penn State started the next drive in the same manner in which they finished the last one, looking like the offense that it had been all year.
  65. And then a snap got away from Gaia, the ball was on the ground, and somehow Wisconsin managed to rumble, stumble and bumble its way to an unlikely touchdown.
  66. 21-7 with an ugly turnover and a defense struggling to contain the run was a problem. Everyone knew it, and you could tell the coaches were feeling it too.
  67. From the 10 minute mark in the 2nd quarter to the 3 minute mark, this team looked much more like flaming bus Penn State basketball than it did Big Ten East Division Champions.
  68. Going for it on fourth down the first time was silly, and turned into a touchdown. That meant you had to go for it the next time because the game was getting out of your control.
  69. Everyone lost their heads. The players were loose with ball security, no one was making plays or holding blocks, and the coaching staff did them no favors.
  70. It finally looked like everyone settled down for the final offensive drive of the half, and they looked competent again. Have to give credit to Trace McSorley - that’s when leadership takes over and cooler heads prevail.
  71. I didn’t think that Saeed Blacknall would score on that play, but you just had a feeling that Penn State would make a play to go into the half down 14.
  72. Blacknall went 6 for 155 in this game. Previously, he had caught 9 balls for 192 yards. If you watched this season, though, this in no way could have surprised you. Blacknall has been making big plays all year, and was averaging over 21 yards per reception. He doesn’t get targeted a lot (the curse of many competent receivers), but he makes big plays when his number gets called.
  73. Down 14 is a lot different than down 21 at the half. It feels within reach, especially here. Wisconsin getting the ball to start the half made me nervous, though.
  74. I can’t imagine why, since clearly the defense decided that it was going to make big plays. Nice work by Curtis Cothran on that opening third quarter drive. Missing a field goal was all that was needed.
  75. 1 play, 70 yards. McSorley to Blacknall. That’s Penn State’s offense is a nutshell.
  76. Gus Johnson going crazy over that play literally made my day on rewatch.
  77. You could see Wisconsin fans look uncomfortable, and momentum had swung in the blue/white direction.
  78. Next verse, same as the first. Brandon Bell did his best Lavar impression, leaping over the line and stripping the ball from Houston. Apparently he didn’t want to be outdone by his buddy Jason Cabinda, who’s similar play made highlight reels earlier in the year.
  79. Again, though, Wisconsin ends up falling on the ball. Total luck.
  80. Why would that matter with Trace McSorley under center? Kid’s got skills.
  81. I think that was the first time all year I had seen McSorley and Barkley run a traditional option pitch play out of the shotgun. That was fun, and got a bunch of yards.
  82. Gus Johnson on the ensuing Barkley touchdown - “Uh oh!”
  83. The second half offense was everything bscaff was telling us it could be. Take advantage of match ups, isolate big receivers on small defenders, and go to work.
  84. Who doesn’t love a good touchdown parade?
  85. How different would this game have looked if McSorley and Hamilton had converted that last 3rd down deep inside Wisconsin territory and Penn State came away with 7 instead of 3?
  86. The roughing call on that last drive was a make up call for the silly one on Bowen, and couldn’t have come at a better time.
  87. Maybe make up call is a bit much. Generally, I thought the officials handled things well, but those two calls stood out to me as a little unnecessary.
  88. At one point during the final Wisconsin drive, Gus Johnson tells viewers that there’s a vibe that Houston has one big throw in his arm. I felt that exact same way, but Chryst elected to keep chipping his way down the field using his backs.
  89. At the end of the day, this season might be more defined by Grant Haley and Marcus Allen than it was by Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley.
  90. Who would’ve seen that coming a few months ago?
  91. Everyone on that field on both sides played their tails off and gave everything they had to walk out Big Ten Champion. That’s what it’s all about. You have to be impressed with everything both teams accomplished.
  92. New Year’s Six bowls for each of these teams is only fair.
  93. Good luck to Wisconsin against Western Michigan. I know it’s a no-win situation for you, but the Cotton Bowl is a great reward for a very good season. Looking forward to seeing you back in Indianapolis in the future.
  94. A few thoughts about the College Football Playoff...
  95. I was more disappointed than I thought I would be when they announced the selections. They were, of course, as we expected they would be.
  96. Washington, Ohio State, Clemson, and Penn State all had outstanding years, and selecting between them was not an easy task.
  97. That said, there are a few takeaways from this decision. One is that the Committee’s criteria is not static. It places higher values on certain criteria for one team or another.
  98. For instance, we really care about Ohio State’s strength of schedule. We don’t care about Washington’s.
  99. We really care about Clemson’s conference title, but don’t care as much about Washington’s.
  100. We really value Penn State’s conference title, but not as much as we value Washington’s.
  101. We don’t value Penn State’s head-to-head victory over Ohio State, or Michigan’s head-to-head victory over Penn State, as much as you’d expect.
  102. These decisions are made in much the same way as the NCAA Tournament selections and seedings, but the pool is so much smaller that the flaws become enlarged.
  103. In my opinion, we would undoubtedly be better off with an 8 team format that guaranteed entry to Power 5 conference champions, the best Group of 5 entry, and two at-large bids to cover teams like Ohio State and Michigan, who had great seasons worthy of a chance to compete on the field against the best in the country.
  104. At the end of the day, Penn State lost two games, including one to Pitt. Had it beaten Pitt, it unquestionably would have been selected, probably as the second seed, and Ohio State would have been left out. Had it not scheduled Pitt, and instead scheduled Portland State, I expect we’d have the same result.
  105. Ultimately, you have to take the decision out of the Committee’s hands by winning as much as you can. If you have two losses, the Committee has a credible argument to put a one-loss team in place above you.
  106. This is not a conspiracy and has nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky. It has nothing to do with people/“the media”/or ESPN not liking us.
  107. Win games. Play well.
  108. Congratulations, James Franklin. You deserve every award and credit that comes your way for bringing this team into the 21st century.
  109. People won’t love this, but here it goes...
  110. We’ve heard a lot of Penn State players discuss how we can finally talk about how great Penn State is, rather than past accomplishments. I couldn’t agree more.
  111. This program desperately needed to get out of the shadow of Joe Paterno and the shadow of the events that transpired over the last several years.
  112. Football is fun again. And not because we’re showing up the NCAA just for fielding a team.
  113. Football is fun because these guys love playing for each other, their coaches, and their university. They did it their own way - with facial hair, and loud locker room music, and celebrations after big plays. They still go to class, they still graduate, they still represent the university well.
  114. They did it their way.
  115. On to Pasadena.
  116. On to the Rose Bowl.
  117. On to USC.
  118. We are ...