UNIVERSITY PARK - Go back to August and tell everyone who follows college football that Penn State would finish 8-4 this season, and most would have suggested that's a crazy notion.
The Las Vegas over/under was 5 1/2 wins. Some, primarily those with little or no knowledge of the program and no understanding that there was still a lot of talent on the team even after some key players defected, thought the Nittany Lions might win only two or three games.
Then came the 0-2 start with losses to Ohio and Virginia, and virtually no one gave the team a chance to have a successful season.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti hugs linebacker Glenn Carson after the Nittany Lions’ 24-21 overtime season-ending victory over Wisconsin on Saturday.
"I want it to go down in history," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said of this year's team. "Not for the wins, but for the character of all our guys, everything that we've been through and how to overcome stuff when you get knocked down."
The Lions were knocked down repeatedly, and not only did they keep getting back up, they shocked college football by emerging as one of the Big Ten's best teams. Even though the conference is down this year, that's still an accomplishment for PSU that few would have thought possible back in August.
"What an unbelievable ride it's been," senior linebacker Michael Mauti said.
2012 record: 7-5
When: Aug. 31, 2013
Where: MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Blue-White Game: April 20
2013 opponents (home games bold): Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, Virginia, Kent State, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin
The ride ended with a 24-21 overtime victory against Wisconsin before 93,505 fans Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Sam Ficken kicked a 37-yard field goal on the Lions' possession in overtime, then Wisconsin's Kyle French missed from 44 yards, giving PSU the win.
There will be no bowl game for the Lions (6-2 in Big Ten), but they can hold their heads high after an 8-4 season and having beaten a Badgers (7-5, 4-4) team that's heading to next week's Big Ten title game, and possibly the Rose Bowl.
"I knew this was a very frustrated football team after the Virginia game," coach Bill O'Brien said of that week-two loss. "I knew that we had good football players."
O'Brien talked all year about those players playing complementary football. That's a simple concept that means the offense, defense and special teams all playing well at the same time.
The Lions have had trouble with that for most of the season, but Saturday they nailed it.
The offense delivered when it had to.
The defense was phenomenal after a slow start.
And Ficken, well, the place-kicker exorcised his demons by coming through in the clutch, something he couldn't do at Virginia.
"It told our story," Hill said of Saturday's year-in-a-nutshell game. "It told everything that we've been through."
Penn State gave up 14 points in the first quarter - the first two TDs its defense allowed in the first period all season - and trailed, 14-7. Much has been written and said all season about the Lions' explosive new offense under O'Brien, but Saturday looked more like old-school PSU as the defense saved the day.
"That was just a very indicative performance and very indicative response of who our kids are," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.
"You take away those first two series, and it was a tremendous day [for the defense]," linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said.
The Badgers scored on their first two drives, then were forced to punt on their next eight by a stingy defense led by Hill (12 tackles) and linebackers Glenn Carson (13) and Gerald Hodges (7). Cornerback Jake Fagnano also picked off a pass to stifle a Badger scoring threat.
The defense took control of the game, giving Penn State's offense time to get in gear. The Lions did that in the second half and finally took the lead, 21-14, with 13:32 to play.
On fourth-and-6 from the Wisconsin 41, Matt McGloin found Jesse James wide open down the left sideline, and the tight end rumbled to the end zone to make it 19-14. O'Brien decided to go for two, and Zach Zwinak busted through the line for the conversion.
Zwinak enjoyed a monster day, running for a career-high 179 yards on 36 carries. He entered with 821 yards, so his huge game put him right on the 1,000 milestone.
"Two, three weeks ago, it was, yeah, an idea," Zwinak said of possible reaching 1,000 yards. "But today I needed a lot of yards to get it, so I'm just happy I got a chance to reach that goal."
The milestone is nothing short of remarkable given that Zwinak started the year fourth on the depth chart behind Bill Belton, Derek Day and Curtis Dukes. Had Silas Redd stayed instead of transferring to USC, Zwinak would have been fifth string.
"As of now, no, no one would have ever thought that [I'd get 1,000 yards]," Zwinak said. "You never know what happens in football."
Allen Robinson also reached the 1,000-yard milestone, becoming just the second PSU receiver to do so. He caught four passes for 35 yards and finished the season with 1,013, joining Bobby Engram (1994 and '95) to hit that milestone.
Wisconsin finally figured out Penn State's defense in the closing minutes, taking over with 3:51 remaining and driving 66 yards to tie it. On fourth-and-goal from the 4, quarterback Curt Phillips hit Jeff Duckworth in the end zone to force overtime.
The Lions got the ball first in the extra period but managed only 6 yards. Ficken then came on and made his 37-yard try - barely, as it just crept past the left upright.
Penn State's defense stepped up on Wisconsin's overtime possession, with end Sean Stanley forcing a fumble by Phillips on second-and-9 from the 24. The Badgers recovered at the 27, but Phillips' third-down pass was incomplete.
French came on to try and tie, but he shanked his 44-yard attempt left.
"I'm just so happy for this team, this university, especially my senior class," PSU cornerback Stephon Morris said before later adding, "That was a hell of a game."
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.