Penn State's Christian Hackenberg throws during the first half against Wisconsin.
Morry Gash/Associated Press
Wisconsin's Dezmen Southward tackles Penn State's Allen Robinson after a 52-yard pass reception during the first half.
By Mark Dent / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MADISON, Wis. -- Impromptu, that's one word to describe what happened early Saturday night. Everything Penn State did seemed to happen unexpectedly, on the fly, from the final result to the Zach Zwinak draw play on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter to the "Jump Around" dance session to the alma mater at the end.
The game finally over, the Penn State players rushed en masse to the corner of the stadium. Fans, gathered together in blankets, coats and blue, were waiting. Together, they sang a familiar tune in the night sky of a foreign stadium.
Penn State 31, Wisconsin 24; and this was a legitimate celebration.
With one surprise victory, the long late-October into November slog that had defined this season shifted from downtrodden to desirable, from laughable to laudable. Memorable even.
The sanctions many said would wreck Penn State haven't caused a losing season yet. The Nittany Lions finished 7-5 this year and are 15-9 since NCAA president Mark Emmert decided to make an example of the school after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
In his postgame news conference, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said those punishments marked the beginning of a new program. Never exactly forthcoming, he still conceded the enormity of difference between 6-6 and 7-5 and how this night and win helps to make up for the inconsistencies that have plagued Penn State this season.
"To be where we are right now -- could we be better? -- certainly," O'Brien said. "We could be better. We could've coached better, could've played better, but I think the program is in pretty good shape right now."
Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2) was ranked No. 14, and the Badgers had allowed 36 points at home this entire season. As such, Las Vegas designated them 231/2- to 25-point favorites against Penn State (7-5, 4-4), depending on the book.
O'Brien explained the circumstance to the players Tuesday, going as far as saying that nobody in State College believed they could win this game. That might have been an exaggeration -- it was Thanksgiving break, when there aren't enough people in town to challenge a football team to a game, let alone doubt the performance of one.
Either way, O'Brien's players paid attention. Offensive guard John Urschel doesn't generally care about odds or disrespect tactics, but he did this time. This was 24 points. Against Ohio State this year, for instance, the Nittany Lions were a 10-point underdog.
"It's a big spread," Urschel said. "That's really all I have to say."
In the second half, the game began to sway in Penn State's favor. After tying the score at 14-14 late in the second quarter, Penn State scored 17 unanswered points on touchdown passes to tight end Jesse James and wide receiver Geno Lewis. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg finished with 336 yards on 20-for-28 passing and four touchdowns.
He had three passing plays longer than 50 yards, to Smith, Adam Breneman and Allen Robinson. Along with Zwinak's 61-yard gain in the fourth quarter, they were the longest Wisconsin had given up this season.
Zwinak's rush came at a scary time for Penn State. Wisconsin had pulled within seven, and the last of eight false-start penalties helped put the Nittany Lions in a third-and-long situation. O'Brien said he figured Wisconsin likely was expecting a pass, so he chose a draw play, and his strategy succeeded.
The defense held from there. It forced three interceptions Saturday, and players who had struggled or barely played this season like linebacker Brandon Bell, cornerback Trevor Williams and safety Malik Golden made some of the most important contributions.
"This kind of eases our mind about some of the previous losses," linebacker Glenn Carson said.
Those losses still count, though, and seven victories isn't bad, but it isn't a championship season, either. As much as redemption will be packaged as a theme, this is still one game, albeit a game to cherish.
Even when the result was in doubt, Penn State displayed demeanor fitting this belief. The players had just huddled up for the beginning of the fourth quarter, and they knew what was going to happen. They knew House of Pain's "Jump Around" was going to blare through the stadium.
The tradition is Wisconsin's, famous. The music played and on the Badgers' side of the field only a few players seemed to pay attention. The rest were still. On the other side, the Penn State players were dancing, surprising themselves with how natural it came. This was their night.
"We all felt it, we all did it," cornerback Jordan Lucas said, "and it felt great to be out there with your team."
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.
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