STATE COLLEGE – Surrounded by a swarm of jubilant Penn State teammates and coaches yelling and pumping fists, senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill found his way to the stands to share one last moment in Beaver Stadium with his father.
The last game in the careers of Hill and the Nittany Lions’ other seniors went down to the wire, but the 24-21 win in overtime over Wisconsin put an uplifting exclamation point on a season unlike any other in college football.
Sam Ficken’s 37-yard field goal put Penn State up for good in the extra period, before Kyle French’s attempt from 44 yards went wide left for Wisconsin to seal a rousing victory on Senior Day in Happy Valley.
“It’s a storybook ending,” Hill said, wearing his Penn State letterman jacket as a player one final time. “The perfect ending to a bad beginning.”
After French’s miss, the blue-and-white denizens who stayed until the bitter end on a cold night let out a collective roar, as if unleashing a season’s worth of pent-up emotions. Flashes from camera phones went off through the stadium to capture the scene.
Designated also-rans by most preseason prognosticators after the NCAA levied strict sanctions on the program in the offseason for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, the Nittany Lions (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) instead rallied to win eight of 10 to finish the year.
“This is a very special team because of the players and because of these seniors,” first-year coach Bill O’Brien said.
Badgers star running back Montee Ball ran for 111 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, and set the NCAA record with his 79th career score.
Quarterback Curt Phillips found Jeff Duckworth for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds left for Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4) to make it 21-all and send the game into overtime after Hill and the rest of the Penn State defense had shut down the Badgers following a first-quarter flurry.
But Wisconsin lost its second straight — not the kind of momentum coach Bret Bielema was hoping for entering next week’s Big Ten title game against Nebraska.
“It’s tremendous for him and everyone around him,” Bielema said about Ball’s record, “but it’s obviously not as fulfilling as a win would be today.”
The Badgers finished the regular season in third place in the Leaders Division behind unbeaten Ohio State and Penn State, but still claimed the title game berth because the two teams ahead of them are ineligible due to sanctions.
Penn State’s uptempo “NASCAR” offense was frustrated in the first half before roaring back after halftime. Quarterback Matt McGloin found Jesse James crossing over the middle on fourth-and 6, and the freshman tight end outraced cornerback Darius Hillary to the front pylon of the end zone with 13:32 left in the game. Zach Zwinak ran for a 2-point conversion to make it 21-14.
But the Badgers weren’t done at chilly Beaver Stadium.
Ball thought he could have sent Wisconsin home happy instead after taking the handoff on first-and-10 from the 25. But whatever daylight Ball saw closed quickly because of the hulking presence of Hill, who took Ball down from behind for a one-yard gain.
It was one of Hill’s career-high 12 tackles. He also had two sacks.
“I thought I was gone. My eyes got really big,” Ball said. “We knew what (Hill) was capable of doing and he made a great play.”
Sean Stanley then sacked Phillips on second down before Carson’s dropped interception on third down to set up the game-ending miss by French.
“I saw it slowly sailing back and I thought it actually had a pretty legit shot of going in,” French said. “I think last second it almost stopped moving and kept going straight.”
Ball’s record-setting day was overshadowed by bruising Penn State running back Zwinak (career-high 179 yards and one score) and the late-game heroics of Ficken, who made all three field-goal attempts on the afternoon.
The last one made it just inside the left upright through light flurries — but it was good enough for the decisive score.
The players rushed in jubilation after French’s missed kick. Injured star linebacker Michael Mauti raised his hands in victory as he hobbled with his teammates to the sing alma mater in front of the student section.
The defense could have used Mauti, especially in an up-and-down first quarter highlighted by Ball’s record-setting run from 17 yards with 6:27 left in the first quarter for a 14-7 Wisconsin lead.
The senior tailback clutched the ball tightly in his right arm while getting pats on the helmet from teammates following his 79th career touchdown, breaking a tie for the major college mark previously set by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio) in 1999.
But with Mauti out, Carson (13 tackles) and Hill (12 tackles, two sacks) took over down the stretch. Hill was a constant presence in the Wisconsin backfield to frustrate Phillips and Ball — no more so than on the final drive.
“The whole game it really told the story of what we’ve been through all year,” Hill said. “Being knocked down, but being able to get back up.”
Wisconsin played without its own star linebacker in Chris Borland, who sat out his second straight game with a right hamstring injury.