Badge of honor: Lions overcome odds to go 7-5

MADISON, Wis. – Vegas gave Penn State very little chance to finish with a winning season, but history will show that the 2013 Nittany Lions were indeed winners.

“Twenty-four point underdogs,” guard John Urschel said while shaking his head. “Come on.”

“I thought it was ridiculous,” coach Bill O’Brien said of the enormous point spread at No. 14 Wisconsin.

The Lions were ticked off about that level of disrespect – the largest underdog spread in program history – and went out and did something about it with a stunning 31-24 victory over the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium.

The improbable, season-ending signature victory serves so many purposes for the present and future of the program, none more important than giving Penn State a winning season at 7-5.

“It just sounds a ton better [than 6-6],” linebacker Glenn Carson said.

“The difference between 7-5 and 6-6 is huge,” Urschel, trying to fight back tears, said. “It’s completely different to have a strong winning season, so that really meant a lot to us.”

That’s two winning seasons in a row now, despite the Lions having to deal with severe sanctions the NCAA levied in an attempt to cripple the program.

That obviously didn’t happen.

Just ask Wisconsin. Or Michigan, which also fell to PSU this season and Saturday came within a two-point conversion of shocking Ohio State.

Just about everyone inside and outside of Vegas thought Penn State’s chance for a winning season had slipped away with last week’s overtime loss to Nebraska, and in this case the Lions probably were the only ones who believed they could pull off the upset at Wisconsin.

O’Brien said Tuesday the massive point spread would not serve as bulletin-board material for his players, but he wasn’t exactly being honest.

“I can tell you flat out that they took offense to the fact that they were 24-point underdogs,” the coach said, “and that nobody even in State College thought they could win the game – except the kids in that locker room and the coaches in that locker room. Those kids took it personally.”

Then they took it out on the Badgers (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten).

Penn State (7-5, 4-4) used several big plays on offense to score 31 points against a defense that ranked fifth nationally in allowing just 13.4 per game. The Lions’ defense also came up huge, holding the eighth-best rushing team in the country to only 120 yards on the ground – 178 less than its average.

The Lions showed Wisconsin they had no intention of laying down when, on the fourth play of the game, Christian Hackenberg rolled to his right and hit tight end Adam Breneman, who raced 68 yards to the end zone.

“It kind of showed that we came here to play, we’re not going to go down easily,” Breneman said. “It definitely set the tempo for the game.”

The game was tied at 14 at the half, then PSU scored 10 points in the third quarter and built the lead to 31-14 with 12:59 to play on a 59-yard TD pass from Hackenberg to Geno Lewis.

Penn State appeared to be in complete control, but the Badgers didn’t give up and gave themselves a chance at the very end. Wisconsin scored a TD with 5:38 left, and despite not getting the onside kick, it held PSU to a three-and-out and blocked Alex Butterworth’s punt to get the ball at the Lions’ 42.

The Badgers quickly drove to the Penn State 30 before stalling, and Jack Russell booted a 47-yard field goal with 4:13 remaining to make it a one-score game.

Trying to run out the clock, Penn State faced a third-and-10 on its own 17-yard line with 3:20 left. Failing to convert there would have forced a punt and given the Badgers plenty of time to try and tie it, but O’Brien called a draw play, and Zach Zwinak busted through a big hole up the middle on his way to a 62-yard gain to the Wisconsin 21.

The Badgers had no timeouts left, but the Lions picked up only 7 yards in three plays and faced fourth-and-3 from the 14 with 35 seconds. Sam Ficken came on to try and seal the victory with a 31-yard field goal, but his late-season struggles continued as he missed it wide right.

Wisconsin had one more opportunity, taking over at its own 20 with just 31 seconds left. Quarterback Joel Stave, who threw for 359 yards but was picked off three times, moved his team down the field with two big passes to Jared Abbrederis.

The Badgers had a chance from the PSU 41 with nine seconds to go, but Stave’s Hail Mary was intercepted by Ryan Keiser in the end zone with one second remaining.

The Lions had their victory. They had their winning season. And they once again had shown the rest of the college football world their resiliency.

“It just shows this team, we don’t quit, we’re not quitters,” defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “I think when we’re facing adversity we fight our hardest. The last two years that’s what we did. We didn’t care what the outside people say, 24-point underdog, all that crap. We didn’t care. We believe in our ability to play football and win games.”

Hackenberg finished his impressive freshman season by completing 21-of-30 passes for 339 yards and four TDs. Zwinak carried 22 times for 115 yards, finishing the season with 989. Allen Robinson had 122 yards receiving on eight catches, giving the PSU single-season record holder 97.

Penn State’s defense held up its end, as well, forcing three turnovers and allowing 24 points against a team that came in averaging 37. The offense and defense picked up the special teams as Ficken missed one field goal, had another blocked and Butterworth had one punt blocked.

“In this program this year, we had a small margin of error, and more times than not we beat that margin of error,” O’Brien said.

The Lions did that well enough to enjoy a winning season, something four other teams in the Big Ten that aren’t facing severe sanctions couldn’t achieve.

O’Brien said the Lions are “two years into basically a new program” because of the sanctions, and yet those two years have seen them go 8-4 and 7-5.

“Could we be better? Certainly,” he said. “We could be better. We could have coached better, we could have played better. But I think the program is in pretty good shape right now.”