By now you’ve heard that Penn State will open Big Ten play on the road for nine straight seasons, going back to the 2016 seasons. Each and every one of these games had their fair share of drama, even if only two resulted in losses. In 2016, The Nittany Lion started the water boy at linebacker on their way to their worst loss of the season against the Michigan Wolverines. They needed a 4th down score in 2017 to come out on top against the Iowa Hawkeyes. In 2018, they were down against Illinois in the third quarter before finally pulling ahead for good. We don’t need to rehash what happened in 2020, and on Saturday, well, it was another drama filled game where the Lions pulled it off right at the end.
After a season where Penn State could stop seemingly no one, the Nittany Lions came out on fire on the defensive side of the ball, almost as if the performances of last season were still fresh in their minds. The offense took a little bit (or an entire half) to get going, but they provided a glimpse of what we can see in the future if that side of the ball continues to improve.
Special teams was a mixed bag, as Jordan Stout did an amazing job of flipping the field with his punts, and had zero of his kickoffs returned. He also missed a chip shot of a field goal and an extra point on Penn State’s second touchdown, one that could have spelled the difference in the game if things had not gone in the Nittany Lions’ favor.
All in all, this was a battle between two teams who were clearly better than their abysmal 2020 seasons led on to believe, and they showed why on the field. Both teams come out of this game with a lot they need to work on. Both teams have an upcoming opponent that should allow them to work on those kinks, before things ramp up back to 100 a week after. And, most importantly, only one team could come up with a win and in this case, the Nittany Lions are sure glad it was them.
As both teams settled into their rhythms, Penn State opened with a 3-and-out, followed by Wisconsin’s own empty possession. On the next drive, the Nittany Lions took the ball all the way to the Wisconsin 34, but what appeared to be a miscommunication between Sean Clifford and his receivers wasted a great opportunity to put points on the board early.
After the two teams traded punts once more, Wisconsin started to lean into their bread and butter, driving down the field (and converting a fourth down of their own in the process), but the drive stalled at the Penn State 7. The Badger’s field goal attempt was blocked by Arnold Ebiketie, so a seven minute drive for the Badgers yielded no points.
This drive, however, was a sign of things to come for the Penn State defense, as another 3-and-out by the Lions sent the defense right back on the field to defend the Badgers for another seven minutes. Wisconsin would once again be unable to capitalize on a productive drive, as Graham Mertz fumbled the exchange between he and Chez Mellusi, a fumble that Penn State would go on to recover.
Two more 3-and-outs by the Lions, coupled by two more Wisconsin scoreless drives, took us to an end-of-half sequence that if nothing else, was very Franklin-esque. With the clock winding down, James Franklin used one of his timeouts to force Wisconsin to run another play, and, dumfoundingly so, the Badgers didn’t use the opportunity to take a shot down the field in the waning seconds.
The defense picked things up where they left off, forcing Wisconsin to punt on their first possession. The offense, finally, was up to the task and opened up the big play ability, scoring on four plays and 55 second of game clock. Sean Clifford set up Jahan Dotson deep, and the standout wide receiver did the rest.
Wisconsin responded by chewing up another four minutes of clock with a touchdown drive of their own. The team would trade a couple of punts before things got exciting, relatively speaking.
In a drive that started late in the third quarter, Wisconsin, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, used a bunch of clock to put a drive together that ended in a field goal. Penn State, to their credit, responded with their own extended drive that resulted in a field goal. The two-minute, 10-second drive was in fact the longest of the game for the Lions, edging out their previous 2:07 drive that ended in a missed field goal.
After another 3-and-out by the Badgers, the Nittany Lions would go on to score another touchdown set up by the big play, this time a 42-yard pass from Clifford to Dotson that put Penn State at the Wisconsin 21. Noah Cain took care of the rest, punching the ball in for what would prove to be the last points of the game.
The Badgers, from there, took another seven minutes off the clock, drove all the way down to the Penn State 1, but another fumbled exchange from Mertz backed them up to the Penn State 8, and a drive that could have possibly sealed the game ended up in an interception from the Badgers.
Penn State, however would not use the remaining two minutes to ice out the contest, and instead gave Wisconsin another opportunity to drive down the field with 1:07 left in the game. The Penn State defense eased up in the first couple of plays, and that turned out to be almost disastrous, as Mertz took advantage and drove the ball from the Wisconsin 18 all the way to the Penn State 25, before the intensity picked up once again and the Lions sealed the game for real when Mertz threw his second interception of the game.
Stats and Storylines
2 - Number of interceptions thrown by Graham Mertz in the closing seconds of the game. Mertz threw five interceptions all of last season.
0 - On the other hand, Sean Clifford, and the offense as a whole, had zero turnovers in the game. The best way to help a shutdown defense is to not force them into bad positions. Clifford and the gang held serve on that end.
43 - It was not all roses and butterflies for the offense, however, as they had 43 total yards in the first half. They would gain 254 yards in the second half, but let’s hope that performance was due to the opponent and the time in the season, and not a sign of things to come.
95 - Plays the Penn State defense defended. Wisconsin held the ball for a total of 42 minutes and 51 seconds. But every time they reached the red zone —except for their lone touchdown of the game, the Badgers came up empty.
It was targeting - Targeting is, and will continue to be, one of the most debated calls in the game, maybe next to pass interference. Unfortunately for Ellis Brooks, that particular targeting call was there right one. He’ll have to miss the first half against Ball State as a result.
Jaquan Brisker The Man - Brisker went down several times in this game, and each time he came back into the game. Brisker, of course, was the recipient of one of Mertz’s two interceptions to seal the win.
We See You Ebiketie - We knew Arnorld Ebiketie was going to be a significant contributor to Penn State’s defense in 2021. What we didn’t know was that he would be a destroyer of dreams and crusher of souls right out of the gate. We love to see it!