Sanders, ‘D’ propel PSU to victory
UNIVERSITY PARK — There were times the past couple of years, even when Penn State was lighting up scoreboards, that the Nittany Lions were accused of having a finesse offense.
And defensively, it was OK for PSU to give up a lot of yards and points because everyone knew the offense would bail them out.
Saturday’s game against Wisconsin was the opposite of all that.
The No. 20 Lions went up against one of the nation’s toughest smash-mouth programs and beat the Badgers at their own game on a blistering cold, windy day before 105,396 fans at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State used a strong ground attack and played tough defense to down Wisconsin, 22-10, in the first head-to-head matchup since the teams played in the 2016 Big Ten championship game.
“Wisconsin’s a great defense, and they kind of pride themselves on being physical,” PSU quarterback Trace McSorley said. “That’s something that, for us, we wanted to prove we can be a physical offense, as well.”
Miles Sanders rushed for 159 yards and topped 1,000 for the season as PSU committed to giving him the ball after not doing so in recent weeks. The Lions (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) finished with 183 yards rushing, and Sanders gave a lot of the credit to his offensive line.
“I’ve worked really hard the last two years that I’ve been here, and it has started with (the O-line),” he said. “I’m more happy for them than me.”
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin ran for 209 yards, but 71 of those came on one play by Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher. He broke loose for the long run and scored on the Badgers’ third play from scrimmage, but the visitors had just 138 yards rushing the rest of the game.
Wisconsin (6-4, 4-3) couldn’t throw the ball at all, finishing with only 60 yards passing, and PSU’s defense did well enough against the run to hold the one-dimensional Badgers to just three points the rest of the way.
“We responded well,” PSU safety Nick Scott said of the defense. (Taylor is) a tremendously talented back. He does a lot of great things for the team. Him getting out on us, that was kind of disappointing. We came in, we wanted to shut him down.
“I think we did a great job getting control of him and that offensive line coming out in the second half, sort of holding them, keeping them honest.”
McSorley suffered a scare late in the first half when he appeared to re-injure his right knee on a sack from behind. He lay on the field for a few seconds but was able to walk off on his own.
Any concerns about McSorley’s health were silenced when he was back out on the field leading the offense to start the second half.
“Yeah, I thought I’d get back in the game,” McSorley said of his mindset after the big hit. “It wasn’t anything super crazy. It just kind of got bent a little bit awkward, just had pain for a couple minutes there. … I came back on the field (in the second half), and it felt fine after that.”
McSorley has been dealing with the knee injury for a couple of weeks and clearly was not himself in last week’s 42-7 loss at Michigan. There was talk throughout the week of how much he would play Saturday, if at all, but there never seemed to be any doubt about once the game started.
“He’s a warrior, he really is, in every sense of the word,” coach James Franklin said of his veteran quarterback. “He’s productive, positive, he’s a leader. … He’s gotten banged up this year the second half of the year and has missed some plays but came back to play at a really high level.”
McSorley finished 19-of-25 for 160 yards and one TD through the air. He did not look to run much, and the Lions did use backup quarterback Tommy Stevens in some running spots. Stevens gained 25 yards on seven carries and didn’t attempt a pass.
Following Taylor’s 71-yard scoring run, the Lions answered with a 75-yard TD drive to pull even. McSorley hit tight end Pat Freiermuth for 16 yards to the Wisconsin 14, and on the next play the quarterback found DeAndre Thompkins for a 14-yard score.
Penn State took the lead for good on its next possession as Jake Pinegar tied a career long by drilling a 49-yard field goal into the wind.
Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, did not make the trip as he’s recovering from a head injury. With backup Jack Coan in charge of the offense, it was apparent the Badgers had little hope of doing any damage throwing the ball.
Coan had a brutal day by any measure, completing 9-of-20 passes for just 60 yards with two interceptions and one fumble. He had only 10 yards passing in the first half.
Penn State got a 1-yard TD from Sanders midway through the first half, and it was 16-7 after Pinegar missed the PAT.
The Badgers had a shot early in the second half, taking the kickoff and moving into scoring position before kicking a 28-yard field goal to make it 16-10.
Wisconsin held PSU’s offense on the ensuing possession, and the Lions lined up to punt on fourth-and-1 from their 36. But they ran a fake instead, with up man Johnathan Thomas taking the snap and getting 1 yard for the first down. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Badgers added 15 more yards.
Penn State’s drive continued when Wisconsin was called for pass interference, and the Lions got to the 23 before Pinegar kicked a 42-yard field goal late in the third quarter.
The Lions made it 22-10 on a 23-yard field goal by Pinegar with 7:23 left to play.
Wisconsin still had time left to mount a rally, but its offense stood no chance of that with its inept passing attack.
Penn State’s defense played an excellent game, getting after the quarterback and making sure Taylor didn’t beat them for anymore long runs after his first one.
“It was very, very impressive,” Franklin said of the recent play by the defense during a tough stretch of the schedule. “I think our defensive coaches have done a great job.”