I deserve all the scorn that has come and will come my way as the Nittany Lions (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) defeated the Badgers (7-5, 4-4), who are heading to Indianapolis through the back door, to close a season replete with unexpected successes. The final score in the single overtime victory was 24-21.
On an emotional Senior Day, Mike Mauti, sidelined with a knee injury, was the team’s inspiration. Several players wore his number 42 on their helmets and even on their backs in tribute to the fallen hero, who is the living symbol of the fire and determination of the 2012 seniors. Mauti, dressed in civvy jeans and his number 42 jersey, led the team spiritually from the sideline, and participated in the coin tosses.
Whatever mojo Mauti supplied was visible on the field. As the hack sportswriters said, this was Penn State’s bowl game. No post-season for them. The Badgers, on the other hand, were inextricably plugged into the Leaders Division slot in the Big Ten Conference championship game in Indianapolis next week, although they would wind up in third place behind the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions, both of whom are enjoined from post-season play. I wrote on Friday that the game really didn’t matter for either team, but apparently, Penn State didn’t get the message.
(Wisconsin will play Nebraska for the Big Ten title on Saturday. Legends Division champ Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) defeated Iowa (4-8, 2-6) 13-7 in a game of no import whatsoever.)
To this turkey, it seemed that Bret Bielema altered his typical game plan for whatever reason. In any case, the Penn State defense was fired up and ready for whatever the Badgers threw at them, aerially and terrestrially. Glenn Carson led the way with nine solo tackles and four assists, while Jordan Hill, who seemed to be everywhere at once, had eight and four. They held Montee Ball to 111 net yards, and kept the Badgers well under their 212-yard season rushing average with a mere 158. It was a fine defensive showing that also forced Wisconsin to go 5-16 on third-down conversions.
Meanwhile, Zach Zwinach was the offensive story for the Nittany Lions. He had what you might call a career day, with 36 carries for 179 yards and a touchdown. The hot-headed Matt McGloin, who at one point admonished his offensive lineman to give him some protection, wound up 19-37 for 200 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times.
We finally got to see the return of Bill Belton, who was pressed into service as a kick returner. He returned one for 17 yards.
Sam Ficken was a perfect 3-3, including what turned out to be the winning field goal. It must have been a great feeling for the guy who many fans wanted to run out of town at various points in the first half of the season, and who single-footedly inspired a change in the Penn State offense to favor fourth-down conversion attempts over field goal attempts.
The announced attendance of 93,505 sucked. The weather might have been a factor, but the low number was a disappointment. In fact, it was the least attended game since the last major Beaver Stadium expansion.
I’m glad I was way off with my prediction. The gamblers hit the over/under right down the middle. The spread was correctly small.
This was the game the Nittany Lions needed to cap a season in which just about everyone’s expectations were exceeded, not the least of all being this turkey. Eight wins? Who knew. Much deserved praise will be heaped on them this morning. They’ll be long remembered as a group that overcame significant barriers to produce a pleasing outcome.
And Mark Emmert can eat shit.