The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

December 1, 2013

Penn State shows knack for bouncing back

MADISON, Wis. — In a stadium full of fans wearing red, the visiting team dressed in white looked right at home laughing and bouncing up and down on the field.

Penn State frolicked to “Jump Around” in between the third and fourth quarters before fending off Wisconsin’s rally to ride off into a rosy offseason with a 31-24 upset victory Saturday.

“Everyone remembers the last game,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “It’s an emotional win and it sets the stage for the future, and it shows that no matter what, we’re not going to quit. We’re just going to keep building.”

In coach Bill O’Brien’s two seasons in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) have shown a knack for bouncing back at moments when it might seem all is lost. Saturday’s victory is emblematic of the program’s resilience. Penn State was coming off a 23-20 loss to Nebraska.

“We’ve said the same thing for two years. I mean, these are the type of kids we have,” O’Brien said. “It was a tough game, but, yeah, our guys practice hard. They love to play.”

Sure helps to have a promising freshman quarterback who only figures to get better under O’Brien’s tutelage. Strong-armed Christian Hackenberg looked poised in throwing for 339 yards and four scores.

Oh, and the team was well aware that it was a 24-point underdog – even though O’Brien earlier in the week had indicated he likely wouldn’t use the news of betting lines as bulletin board material.

“Twenty-four points,” offensive lineman John Urschel said, cutting off a question about whether he knew the spread. “Not saying necessarily it was addressed, but I was aware of it.”

So were his teammates.

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

Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2) dropped seven spots to No. 21 in the AP Top 25 poll released Sunday. Senior Day turned into a dud. The Nittany Lions stacked the box against the run, so the Badgers tried to throw on Penn State’s vulnerable secondary. It worked to an extent, though quarterback Joel Stave had three interceptions.

He was 29 of 53 for 339 yards with three touchdowns. But Wisconsin is constructed to win games behind its potent 1-2 punch of Melvin Gordon and James White at running back.

“That’s not really how we’re built to operate,” Stave said. “But, you know, if that’s how the game’s going, that’s how we have to do it.”

Didn’t work.

Just as surprising was how a senior-laden defense looked ill-prepared for Penn State’s offense. There were mix-ups in substitution packages and coverages much of the afternoon. Linebacker Chris Borland said the Badgers had trouble adjusting to Penn State’s up-tempo scheme.

“But that wasn’t the reason the score was what it was,” he said. “We underperformed. We didn’t execute.”

And just when the defense thought it had come up clutch, the Badgers gave up a 61-yard run to Zach Zwinak on third-and-9 from the 18 with less than 4 minutes left. A stop there would have given Wisconsin much more time to execute a potential game-tying drive.

Hopes for an at-large berth in a Bowl Championship Series game are gone, but at least the Badgers can bounce back with a pending bowl assignment.

Penn State will have to wait until next season to return. NCAA sanctions resulting from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal prevent the program from going to the postseason. The sanctions force O’Brien to field a team that often plays with a little more than 60 recruited scholarship players.

But on a cool, crisp day in Madison, the Nittany Lions once again delivered this statement: Never, ever count out Penn State. Not while O’Brien is around.

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