UNIVERSITY PARK — Some players watched. Others didn’t.
The roar told everybody on the home sideline what happened: Penn State ended four difficult months with a memorable victory.
Penn State’s Sam Ficken nailed a 37-yard field goal and Wisconsin’s Kyle French missed a 44-yarder as the Nittany Lions ended their season with a 24-21 overtime victory Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
The triumph allowed Penn State to finish its first season under NCAA sanctions with an 8-4 record, a mark that seemed improbable after an 0-2 start. Bill O’Brien, who was hired as Joe Paterno’s permanent successor last January, is the first coach in Penn State history to win eight games in his first season.
“When you’ve been in a losing locker room at the end of the season, it’s a horrible feeling,” O’Brien said. “When you’ve been in a winning locker room at the end of the season, it’s an euphoric feeling. I feel really good for these kids.”
The sanctions will prevent the program from appearing in a bowl game. It’s unlikely anything in the Florida sun could match Saturday’s four drama-filled hours.
Thirty-five minutes before the kickoff, the team’s 31 seniors were honored with a ceremony culminating in the unveiling of the year “2012” placed on a wall between luxury suites. Four hours later, Penn State found itself locked in its first overtime game since a 2006 victory at Minnesota.
“It was the greatest time of my life,” senior defensive end Pete Massaro said. “It was really unbelievable.”
The player who scored the winning points epitomized the resiliency Penn State displayed this season.
On a humid day in September, Ficken missed four field goals, including a 42-yarder as time expired, in a 17-16 loss at Virginia. Ten games later, Ficken redeemed himself by hitting three field goals, including one in the first overtime possession. Ficken kicked 10 straight field goals to end the season.
“It’s like a fairytale, “ he said.
A fairytale that needed an encore because 60 minutes settled nothing.
Wisconsin started its overtime offensive possession on Penn State’s 25-yard line. Star tailback Montee Ball, who scored an NCAA-record 79th career touchdown in the first quarter, gained one yard on first down. Sean Stanley sacked quarterback Curt Phillips and forced a fumble on the next play. Wisconsin lineman Kyle Costigan jumped on the ball three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson dropped an interception on third down, making him perhaps the most nervous person in the stadium when French walked onto the field. Penn State coach Bill O’Brien called timeout, and French hooked his kick wide left.
Carson said he wasn’t going to watch the kick until a brief sideline conversation with Michael Mauti, a senior outside linebacker who missed the game with a serious knee injury suffered last week against Indiana. Players honored Mauti by wearing his No. 42 on their helmets. Mauti served as an assistant coach, watching most of the game alongside defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
“I wasn’t going to watch because I was so sick I dropped that interception,” Carson said of the final play. “It clearly hit me in the worst spot — right in the hands. But Mike picked me up and said, ‘Watch this. We’re going to win the game right here.’ Fortunately, they missed. It was just a great feeling.”
After his team struggled moving the ball for most of the second half, Phillips rolled right and hit Jeff Duckworth for a 4-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left. The fourth-down completion ended a 14-play, 66-yard drive that took 3:33.
The game fit multiple stereotypes associated with late-season Big Ten football. Neither team completed more than 20 passes, and O’Brien decided to give 6-foot-1, 232-pound bruiser Zach Zwinak a career-high 36 carries. Zwinak responded by gaining a career-high 179 yards, giving him exactly 1,000 for the season.
Wisconsin distributed carries among six players, with Ball gaining a team-high 111 yards on 27 attempts.
Melvin Gordon’s 57-yard touchdown reception and Ball’s record-setting 17-yard touchdown run in the first quarter gave the Badgers a 14-7 lead they brought into halftime. Wisconsin was the only team to score a first-quarter touchdown against Penn State this season.
Ficken nailed two third-quarter field goals to close the gap. Penn State obtained its first lead on Matt McGloin’s 41-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Jesse James less than two minutes into the fourth quarter.
The Badgers, on the other hand, didn’t collect a first down until their fifth possession of the half.
“Our kids did a great job of making adjustments and battling back,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “We got hit in the forehead real quick. I think that was just a very indicative performance and very indicative response of who are kids are.”
In his final game, McGloin, a former walk-on from Scranton, completed 19 of 37 passes for 200 yards. Allen Robinson caught three passes for 35 yards to join Bobby Engram as the second Penn State player to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
The Badgers finished the regular season 7-5, yet they qualified for next week’s Big Ten title game against Nebraska because of Penn State and Ohio State’s postseason bans. Only three Big Ten teams — Ohio State (12-0), Nebraska (10-2) and Northwestern (9-3) — ended the regular season with more wins than Penn State.
Saturday’s victory improved Penn State to 6-2 in Big Ten play.
“When you look at it, it’s just one game,” senior offensive tackle Mike Farell said. “But it really meant the world to this team.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.