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Penn State Goes On 31-3 Run To Beat No.6 Wisconsin And Win Big Ten Title 38-31

by on December 04, 2016 2:00 AM

INDIANAPOLIS -- It has been 800 days since James Franklin said he would fix Penn State football.

"I want to thank everybody for coming," Franklin said as he closed his press conference following a Homecoming loss to Northwestern "I want the fans, the media, the recruits and everybody to know, that I promise we will get this fixed."

800 days later, he had. It took 34 games, 21 wins, two offensive line coaches, two offensive coordinators, two defensive coordinators and two quarterbacks. It took multiple votes of confidence, it took a humbling and it took perhaps more work than Franklin thought it would.

But as a Penn State crowd left Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night it marked the arrival and the end of the first phase of that quest.

Penn State football had become Big Ten Champions.

The victory was as improbable as the season. The Nittany Lions started slow and Wisconsin jumped out to a 7-0 lead following a grinding and methodical opening drive that lasted eight minutes, 13-plays and 81-yards. It was effectively a statement, that Penn State had made its way to the Big Ten title game, but it was going to have to earn the hardware the old fashion way.

The Nittany Lions' high powered offense stumbled again and it took just one 67-yard run by Wisconsin back Corey Clement to turn that 7-0 game into a 14-0 blowout in the making. A largely pro-Penn State crowd was silenced by the sudden reminder that for all the good the Nittany Lions had done this year, they were up against the No. 6 team in the nation and one of its best defenses. This wasn't going to be easy, and the Badgers weren't just going to roll over.

But neither did Penn State.

True to from it was a long floated pass to Mike Gesicki from Trace McSorley that started the ignition on Penn State's offense. A 33-yard bomb that found its target and with it seven points as the Nittany Lions finally arrived, perhaps a few minutes too late to the party. Penn State's defense would hold on the ensuing drive, but a sack fumble led to a scoop-and-score Wisconsin touchdown that put the Badgers out in front to the tune of 21-7.

"There's been a lot of ups and downs and adversity you have to go through. But I actually met with Coach in the offseason. He gave me a bunch of quotes, and one was "If there's no struggle, there's no progress."' Gesicki said after the game. "I think that goes along not only with myself but with this team. Since I've been here, there's obviously been some downs and some struggles and some adversity, but without that you can't grow and you can't improve."

That adversity showed itself again just four minutes later as Wisconsin capped off another short drive. Penn State failed to convert a fourth-and-short inside its own half of the field. In a flash it was 28-7.

Suddenly the improbable season seemed to have hit its final stanza. Wisconsin's defense was eating Penn State's offensive front, the Nittany Lions were struggling to stop a physical rushing attack. There was heart and there was effort, but sometimes you aren't the better team and there is nothing you can do about it.

It turns out though there is something Trace McSorley can do about it.

Six passes, four catches, two drops, 77 yards and a 40-yard catch and run by Saeed Blacknall that suddenly gave Penn State hope. Down 28-14 with just under a minute to play in the half the Nittany Lions weren't out of the woods, but they had life. If nothing else they had a chance.

Penn State's second half success has been nothing short of stunning. There are few words to describe how effective the Nittany Lions have become in the final 30 minutes of play. In sports there is the saying that you can't just flip the switch, but Penn State appears to be the exception to that rule. They are, in every possible sense of the phrase, a second half team.

And that team showed up right on time.

Wisconsin opened the second half with a long drive, but a missed 48-yard field goal gave Penn State its best field position of the day at the Nittany Lions' own 30.

And if you give this team an opening, it will take it every single time.

That's exactly what Blacknall did, with a single play, 70-yard catch and run that shook the iron built stadium to its core as the crowd erupted in elation.

They had seen this show before, and they knew how it almost always ended.

Wisconsin would punt just five plays later.

Penn State would score eight plays after that, a tactical 63-yard drive down the field capped off by Saquon Barkley plowing through defenders for a one-yard touchdown.

The trouble with comebacks though is that it takes a lot to pull it off. You can score 14-straight points and still be behind. You have to make up for lost ground and keep from losing more. It doesn't take much to negate a lot of good football.

So it was a threatening moment in the game for the Nittany Lions as Wisconsin marched 70-yards in nine plays seemingly prepared to deliver another potential knockout punch. But it never happened, Penn State's defense stood strong, forcing a 23-yard field goal to put the Badgers ahead just three points. A few hours earlier that may have seemed like far too many points, but  this is a second half Penn State team, one that essentially defines the concept. Three points wasn't going to be enough.

And that team showed why, McSorley throwing completions of 35 and 25-yards capped off by a beautiful 18-yard lob to Saquon Barkley that gave Penn State a 35-31 lead early in the final quarter.

Wisconsin would go five-and-out on the ensuing drive, setting Penn State up for the final blow, but the Badgers forced a 24-yard field goal and with 5:14 to play, Wisconsin was far from done.

For 4:14 Wisconsin drove, a mix of runs and passes, slowly working down the field chunks at a time. A 16-yard pass, a 13-yard pass, a 4-yard run. Just enough to make everyone wonder if a game that had been seemingly over on multiple occasions was suddenly going to need more time to be decided.

The answer to that question came down to a single play. A single attempt to run the ball three feet forward on the field of play. A single snap of the football that would take just four seconds off the clock.

The ball entered the hands of Corey Clement who rushed toward his right looking for the edge and a hole.

He never found it, but safety Marcus Allen and corner Grant Haley found him and in turn Clement would come up just shy, just inches in a game of inches from a chance to stay alive. A fitting moment for them both, the players responsible for the blocked field goal and touchdown against Ohio State, once again teaming up for the play that would eventually seal the deal.

"It's just something that our coaches prepare for us," Haley said after the game. "And when the time -- when it's time to step up, I feel like any person on our defense or offense is going to step up, and it just happens to be the situation that Marcus and I have been in two great situations. But I think our coaches, you know, they just game plan for these opportunities for the outcome to be successful."

The clock read 1:01, but it may as well have read zero as Penn State ended the game on its own terms and McSorley ran backwards to run out the final three seconds off the clock.

And with that Penn State was 11-2, Big Ten champion and a vote behind closed doors from the college football playoffs.

"For me it's not just the season. It's all the hard work and all the positive steps that we've been taking for three years. It didn't always seem that way maybe to others, but we felt that way. It wasn't easy. Those steps weren't downhill. Those steps were up Mount Nittany. And that's kind of how I look at it."

From there the rest was a blur. Players cried, fans cheered and as confetti rained down James Franklin lifted the Big Ten trophy high in the air.

And with it the last 800 days.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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