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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Hack and Zach it Past Wisconsin in 31-24 Upset

by on November 30, 2013 3:30 PM

Against nearly all odds, the Nittany Lions Hacked and Zached the Badgers for an upset of O’Brien proportions.

Penn State defeated the Badgers 31-24 in Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, downing No. 14 Wisconsin after entering its final regular-season contest as 24-point underdogs.

It was an odds-maker’s line that dogged the Lions all week – and a long week at that, given that there were no classes due to Thanksgiving break.

“I can tell you flat-out that they took offense to the point that they were 24-point underdogs,” second-year head coach Bill O’Brien said. “I thought that was ridiculous.”

The victory gave Penn State a final 7-5 record (4-4 Big Ten), its second consecutive winning record after being hit hard by NCAA sanctions in July 2012. Penn State ended its 2012 season by downing the Badgers 24-21 in OT in Beaver Stadium to finish 8-4.

“That’s your bowl right there,” said O'Brien, 15-9 as a head coach. “That’s what it is and we came out on top against a very good team.”

Under O’Brien, the Lions have been a remarkably resilient bunch. Witness their big day passing against Wisconsin, despite eight – eight! – penalties called against the Nittany Lions’ veteran offensive line. They are 8-1 in games after a loss; 6-3 in the month of November; 3-1 in overtime games; and 3-2 against Top 25 teams. Faced with – and having overcome -- obstacle after obstacle, Penn State’s us-against-the-world mentality begins with its coach.

"It doesn't matter one bit what you think," O’Brien said in his post-game press conference. "It matters what they think, and I think that's what they understand and they showed it tonight."

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the lynchpin of O'Brien’s rebuilding efforts, threw for four touchdowns. They went to Adam Breneman (68 yards), Geno Lewis (3 yards and 59 yards) and Jesse James (7 yards). Overall, Hackenberg completed 21 of 30 passes (70%) for 339 yards, with no interceptions. It was his first game with four TDs and his fourth 300-yard game, tying him with Matt McGloin for the school record in a single season.

Wisconsin's defense entered the game No. 9 in the nation, allowing just 179.4 passing yards per game. Penn State responded with the four longest plays from scrimmage vs. Wisconsin this year: a 68-yard TD pass, a 61-yard run, a 59-yard TD pass and a 52-yard pass.

A 61-yard fourth-quarter run by Zach Zwinak on a third-and-9 draw play from Penn State’s own 17 sealed the win. "You’re trying to stay one step ahead,” O’Brien said. “We hit the draw and it was good.”

Against Wisconsin, Zwinak had just 54 yards on his first 20 carries. He finished with 115 yards on 22 carries, giving him 989 rushing yards in 2013. (In 2012, he ran for 179 yards in the season-ender against Wisconsin and finished with 1,000 yards.) Zwinak rushed for over 100 yards in each of his final four games of the 2013, a feat he also did in 2012 -- making him the first Nittany Lion to accomplish that Final Four x 100 in two different seasons.

Penn State held Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2) to 120 rushing yards – 178 yards below its season average behind Melvin Gordon and James White, who both entered the game with over 1,280 yards rushing. Gordo had 91 yards on 13 carries, while White had 56 yards on 13 carries.


Wisconsin went to the air early and often, and then when it got behind the Badgers had to keep throwing the ball. Quarterback Joel Stave completed 29 of 53 passes for 339 yards, with three TD passes – one to Jeff Duckworth and two to Brian Wozniak. Jar Abbrederis had 12 catches for 135 yards, but did not score a TD.

Stave was picked off three times, by Penn State’s Trevor Williams, CJ Olaniyan (off of a strip by linebacker Brandon Bell) and Ryan Keiser, on the game’s final play, a Hail Mary by Stave. Both Williams and Olaniyan returned their picks 33 yards to set up two Penn State scores.  Penn State’s defense forced 11 turnovers in its last five games, and just nine in its first seven.

Linebacker Mike Hull led the Lions with seven tackles, while Bell had six, and Keiser and linebacker Glenn Carson, making his 36th and last start for Penn State, had five.  Defensive end Anthony Zettel had two sacks. Lions cornerback Adrian Amos was sidelined with a foot injury and Williams and safety Malik Golden both stepped up in the secondary, which faced the most pass attempts (53) it had all season.

Junior Allen Robinson led PSU with eight receptions for 122 yards. He now has 167 career catches, just two from all-time record-holder Deon Butler.

Field goal kicker Sam Ficken was 1 of 3 for the Nittany Lions. He had a 34-yarder blocked in the first quarter, made a 28-yarder in the third quarter and missed wide right a 31-yarder with 31 seconds remaining in the game. For the second game in a row, Penn State punter Alex Butterworth had a kick blocked.


Wisconsin pulled to within 31-24 by scoring twice in 90 seconds. With 5:38 left, Stave threw a 5-yard TD pass to tight Brian Wozniak. Then the Badgers' Leo Musso blocked the ensuing punt by Butterworth. Wisconsin took over at its 42. The Badgers converted the blocked punt into a 48-yard career-long field goal by Jack Russell, to pull Wisconsin to within 31-24 with 4:08 left in the game.

To begin the fourth quarter, Penn State struck twice -- with a defensive play setting up the offense -- and upped its lead against Wisconsin to 17 points. Fifty-six seconds into the fourth quarter, Williams picked off a deep pass Stave at the PSU 5 and returned it 33 yards to the Penn State 38, halting a promising Badger drive.

Just three plays later, the Nittany Lions turned the turnover into a TD, when Hackenberg connected with Lewis on a 59-yard touchdown play. Ficken's PAT gave the Lions a 31-14 lead. It was Hackenberg's fourth TD pass of the day.


Penn State regained the lead, 21-14, midway through the third quarter when Hackenberg threw his third touchdown pass of the day, a seven-yarder to James in the right corner of the end zone. James reached around the Wisconsin defender to make the grab and give the Nittany Lions the lead 7:31 into the third quarter. The catch capped a 10-play, 67-yard Penn State scoring drive.

Penn State upped its lead to 24-14 2 minutes and 2 seconds later on a 28-yard field goal by Ficken, with 4:56 left in the third quarter. Ficken's score was set up by the Nittany Lion defense when Bell stripped Stave and Olaniyan returned the interception 33 yards to the Wisconsin 19.


In the first half, Hackenberg completed 13 of 16 passes for 221 yards, with zero interceptions and TD passes of 68 yards to Breneman and 3 yards to Lewis. These kids are all right – all three are in their first year playing college football (Lewis is a redshirt freshman). The result? A surprising 14-14 halftime tie.

Wisconsin was also effective by the air in the first half. Stave completed 10 of 17 passes for 117 yards, with TD passes to Wozniak (4 yards) and Duckworth (20 yards). The Badgers entered the game as one of the nation’s top rushing teams with two 1,000-yard rushers and an average of 298 yards per game, was held to under 100 yards. Penn State had just 16 yards on 10 carries.

Early in the second quarter, the Badgers’ offense went 71 yards in 11 plays, and scored on a four-yard pass from Stave to Wozniak. Russell's PAT tied the game 7-7, with 11:50 left in the first half.

Wisconsin took the lead 14-7 with 5:05 left in the first half on a 20-yard TD pass from Stave to Duckworth. That capped an 11-play, 77-yard drive where Wisconsin converted a third-and-16. After starting 2 of 6 for 11 yards, Stave came back to complete 6 of 7 passes for 81 yards and two TD passes.

Penn State tied it at 14-14 with 1:16 left in the first half when Hackenberg connected with Lewis on a three-yard score, followed by a Ficken PAT. Lewis was split far left and was uncovered by a Wisconsin defender. Badger head coach Gary Anderson ran down the left sideline to call timeout after seeing Lewis was not covered. But game officials did not call time.

That culminated a wild and wacky Penn State scoring drive, which covered 71 yards in seven plays. Penn State's O-linemen Ty Howle and Donovan Smith were both called for false starts. Hackenberg completed a 19-yarder to Robinson along the right sidelines and a 29-yarder to Lewis along the left sidelines. Wisconsin safety Sojourn Shelton was whistled for pass interference -- a questionable call -- on Lewis in the end zone, a 15-yard pass interference penalty that gave Penn State the ball at the Wisconsin 16. Three plays later Hackenberg threw for his second TD of the day.


Just four plays into the game, the Nittany Lions jumped to a 7-0 lead when Hackenberg completed a 68-yard scoring pass to Breneman. Hackenberg faked a hand-off to Zwinak on a dive left, then rolled right to hit Breneman on a crossing pattern. After Breneman shook off a tackle by Wisconsin safety Nate Hammon, he used a block by Lewis to run to the end zone untouched. Ficken's PAT gave Penn State a 7-0 lead 1:55 into the game. It was the third consecutive game that Penn State's heralded freshman duo connected has for a TD.

After the PSU defense held Wisconsin to a three-and-out, Penn State drove down to the Wisconsin 12. A key play on the drive was a slip screen pass from Hackenberg to Robinson. A-Rob took the ball behind the line of scrimmage and raced 52 yards to the Badgers' 21. The Lions were going to go for it on fourth and a half-yard just outside the Wisconsin 10. But Lion offensive tackle Eric Shrive jumped offsides. The Lions moved back five yards to the 17, where they tried a 34-yard field goal by Ficken. It was low and blocked, and with 6:06 left in the first quarter Penn State led 7-0.

Hackenberg came out strong in the first quarter, completing 8 of 9 passes for 159 yards -- an average of 17.7 yards. Breneman (75 yards), A-Rob (59) and Jesse James (17) each had two catches for Penn State in the first quarter. Zwinak had six carries for seven yards.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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