Giger: Di$respected: Penn State and bookies win big at Wisconsin

Penn State posted a big win Saturday, and so did the bookies who made the Nittany Lions 24-point underdogs at Wisconsin.

Wait. What?

The bookies were way, way off with that point spread, as PSU upset the No. 14 Badgers, 31-24.

On the surface, it might seem that the Vegas oddsmakers totally whiffed on the point spread, which Bill O’Brien called “ridiculous.” But that ridiculous line wound up making the bookies a bunch of money because, despite what O’Brien and the Penn State players felt, most bettors actually put their money on the Badgers.

“You would think that that game was so out of whack,” said Tony Sinisi, an Altoona native and longtime oddsmaker with more than 23 years’ experience, “but actually it was a good game from the booking side because all the money came in on Wisconsin.”

And all of those bets lost, meaning tons of money went to the bookies.

“I wouldn’t say a killing, but it was absolutely a good game for the books,” said Sinisi, who now works as an independent oddsmaker.

The 24-point spread that upset the Lions didn’t seem at all ridiculous to gamblers, proven by the fact that the final line at kickoff had moved up to 25 1/2 points in some sportsbooks, Sinisi said. That’s what happens when the majority of money is bet on one team.

So basically just about everyone was wrong.

“We felt disrespected,” Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson said of the enormous point spread, the largest the Lions have ever faced as an underdog.

Those who follow football point spreads often are amazed at how, regardless of what happens in the games, the final score more often than not gravitates back near the original line. A team that’s favored by 10 1/2 might be up by 24 in the closing minutes, but sure enough, late TDs, turnovers, onside kicks and other elements turn what looks like a surefire winner into heartbreak for gamblers.

Sinisi pointed out that “the line is not predictive, it’s set to balance the action” from a pure money standpoint. Still, it’s remarkable that far more often than not the point spread turns out to be very close to the final score.

This past football weekend was a big exception.

Not only did the oddsmakers whiff on the Penn State point spread, but:

n LSU was favored by 24 over Arkansas, and the Razorbacks were in position for the upset all day until falling in the closing minute, 31-27.

n Central Florida was favored by 26 over South Florida and nearly lost before rallying for a 23-20 win.

n Ohio State was favored by 16 1/2 but barely held on, 42-41, as Michigan failed on a two-point conversion in the final minute.

n Alabama was favored by 10 1/2 over Auburn but lost the game, 34-28, and its national title hopes.

Man, those oddsmakers sure were terrible on those games.

“This weekend there was more of those [big misses] than I can remember this year,” Sinisi said.

But it didn’t matter. Because the bookies almost always win big when underdogs cover, simply because most people bet on favorites, feeling more comfortable going with a good team than putting their money on a perceived bad one as an underdog.

As O’Brien pointed out Saturday, Penn State matched up very well against Wisconsin, something the bookies didn’t expect because the Lions had been winless on the road and had been crushed at Ohio State (63-14) and at Indiana (44-24).

“I certainly didn’t see that coming,” Sinisi said of the Lions’ upset. “Penn State had not played well on the road. Wisconsin’s strength went against Penn State’s weakness; they run the ball well. You’d think Penn State had shot its shot at home against Nebraska, and it had the look of a bloodletting. So a lot of credit to Penn State and Bill O’Brien.”

One area O’Brien seems to excel at is finding ways to motivate his players, be it with an ill-advised comment by Purdue coach Darrell Hazell or a ridiculous betting line. The coach used the 24-point spread to fire up his players, then he expressed anger after the game about how the number got that big in the first place.

But as Sinisi mentioned, using point spreads as bulletin-board material might happen all the time, but a coach may only point it out after the fact when things go his team’s way.

“When they were 17 [point underdogs] at Ohio State and they lost by what, 50 or whatever [actually 49], did he criticize the line that night?” Sinisi said of O’Brien. “These guys absolutely pick their spots.”

Since he has central Pennsylvania ties, Sinisi knows his stuff about the PSU program and all the great things O’Brien has done for it. Then again, people like him have to know their stuff about every program if they’re going to stick around in the oddsmaking business.

Either way, Sinisi has a lot of respect for O’Brien and made it clear that all point spreads are about business, made by people whose only concern is making money.

“I like [O’Brien] a lot,” Sinisi said. “I think he’s done a great job there. I think he’s been a great coach, and strategically-wise and media-wise I think he has said all the right things over the last couple of years.”

That includes making sure his team knew how big of an underdog it was Saturday.

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger.