UNIVERSITY PARK -- It's been anything but a storybook year at Penn State, but the historic and memorable 2012 football season ended in what the Nittany Lion players called storybook fashion Saturday.
"It was the perfect ending to a bad beginning," senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said after Saturday's 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.
A true test of character is how one deals with adversity, and the Lions did that time after time over the past year. They endured the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the death of former coach Joe Paterno and the NCAA levying severe sanctions -- all before the season even started -- then they lost their first two games.
Penn State's players remained focused, however, and won eight of their final 10 games to finish 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten. There will be no bowl game because of the sanctions, but Saturday's win gave Penn State its best signature victory of the season.
"What a storybook ending to this whole deal," said senior linebacker Michael Mauti, who missed Saturday's game with a knee injury.
"I've never been more proud to be a part of any team, and I've never cared about anybody as much as I care about this team, these coaches," Mauti added. "It's just truly an honor to wear the jersey."
Mauti's teammates honored him in very unusual fashion as every player had his No. 42 on the left side of their helmets. Mauti, the inspirational leader of the team, suffered his season-ending knee injury last week.
Penn State's players had not worn numbers of any kind on their helmets since the 1975 Cotton Bowl, when each player's number was displayed on his helmet. Mauti found out about the helmet honor when he walked into the locker room before the game.
"I just got real emotional at the time," he said. "There's no bigger honor, and for them to do that -- I understand the fact that I'm not dead; that's really what I first thought. Usually that's what happens. But I think that's when you kind of truly understand the meaning of what you've been doing, and it's just such an honor."
Mauti would not discuss the severity of his injury or whether he might seek a medical hardship so that he can be granted a sixth year of eligibility in 2013. Senior linebacker Gerald Hodges paid his own special tribute to Mauti by wearing jersey No. 42 during the game.
This year's football team also was honored before the game as "2012" was unveiled on the east facade of Beaver Stadium. Penn State's championship and undefeated seasons are displayed there, and acting athletic director Dave Joyner suggested the team be recognized in that way.
"I feel great for these kids," first-year coach Bill O'Brien said of the win.
Place-kicker Sam Ficken overcame his own personal adversity this year. He missed four field goals and an extra point in a loss at Virginia in week two, only to turn things around late in the season. Ficken made his final 10 field-goal attempts, including a 37-yarder in overtime that decided the game.
"It's like a fairytale ending," Ficken said.
Wisconsin 7, Penn State 0: Curt Phillips avoided a blitz by Gerald Hodges and hit a wide-open Melvin Gordon down the right sideline. Gordon did the rest, racing 57 yards for a TD with 13:11 left. It was the first TD the Lions allowed in the first quarter all season.
Penn State 7, Wisconsin 7: It was the Zach Zwinak show as he carried nine times, caught one pass and was thrown to two other times on a 78-yard TD drive. Zwinak finished off the drive on a 3-yard TD burst with 8:17 to go in the first. Zwinak also was involved in a key play as the intended receiver on third-and-4 from the PSU 38, and Wisconsin was flagged for pass interference to keep the drive alive.
Wisconsin 14, Penn State 7: Montee Ball became the NCAA's career touchdown leader when he scored from 17 yards out with 6:27 left in the quarter. The Badgers started at the 47 after a 47-yard kickoff return by Kenzel Doe. Jared Abbrederis went 24 yards on an end-around on the first play, and Ball carried three times for the final 29 yards on the drive.
Wisconsin 14, Penn State 10: The Lions took the second-half kickoff and drove for an apparent TD on a 6-yard pass from Matt McGloin to Brandon Moseby-Felder, who tiptoed in the back of the end zone. After a long replay review, however, the officials ruled Moseby-Felder juggled the ball as he was falling out of bounds and negated the score. Sam Ficken kicked 23-yard field goal with 10:55 left in the quarter. The big play of the drive was a 37-yard pass from McGloin to tight end Jesse James to the Wisconsin 10.
Wisconsin 14, Penn State 13: Zwinak continued to pick up big chunks of yards as he helped the Lions go on a long drive after taking over at their 13. Zwinak went for 24 yards on the first play, and PSU got the benefit of a pass interference call on Marcus Cromartie to the Badgers' 48. O'Brien initially thought about going for it on fourth-and-3 at the 15, but he called a timeout and decided to kick it. Ficken made a 32-yarder, his ninth consecutive field goal, with 2:58 left in the quarter.
Penn State 21, Wisconsin 14: McGloin hit tight end Jesse James on a 41-yard catch-and-run TD to give the Lions their first lead with 13:32 to play. The drive went 67 yards in only six plays, and Zwinak busted in on the two-point conversion to make it a seven-point lead.
Penn State 21, Wisconsin 21: The Badgers tied it up with only 18 seconds left after a 66-yard TD drive. Curt Phillips delivered several big passes to keep the chains moving, then he hit Jeff Duckworth on fourth-and-goal from 4 to even up the game.
Penn State 24, Wisconsin 21: The Lions managed just 6 yards in three plays, setting up Sam Ficken for a 37-yard field goal. The kicker snuck it just through the left upright, his 10th consecutive FG make, to give PSU the lead. Wisconsin's Kyle French then missed a 44-yard try wide left, winning it for the Lions.