The Nittany Lions knew how special their team could be in the offseason.
They set a goal to reach and win the Big Ten Championship, and starting off the season with two losses in the first four games didn’t deter them.
Penn State accomplished what it set out to do — and then it celebrated.
The No. 7 Nittany Lions are Big Ten Champions, defeating No. 6 Wisconsin 38-31 in the conference title game on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium behind a historic performance by quarterback Trace McSorley.
“I imagined it,” McSorley said of the Big Ten title win. “It was the ultimate goal for us.”
McSorley, who was named the game’s MVP, did his part, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns. In the process, he set Penn State single-season passing records for touchdowns and yards.
The redshirt sophomore turned in the greatest performance of his career when the Nittany Lions needed it most.
The first half was less-than-ideal for Penn State. A 28-14 lead for the Badgers felt like an unsurmountable one, and with several mistakes — failed fourth down attempt, botched snap for a Badger touchdown, etc. — the Nittany Lions were lucky it wasn’t a larger deficit.
But out came McSorley and the Joe Moorhead offense, just as it has so often this season, to help save Penn State.
The Virginia native hooked up with wideout Saeed Blacknall for a 70-yard score on their first drive of the second half, and followed it up with three more scoring series.
Saquon Barkley punched home a one-yard score to tie it 28-28 with 4:22 left in the third quarter, the back caught an 18-yard score from McSorley to give Penn State a 35-31 lead with 13:41 left in the fourth, and the offense drove down to score again late in the fourth, a chip-shot field goal by Tyler Davis to pull the Nittany Lions ahead 38-31.
Throughout the second half, McSorley went time and time again to Blacknall (six catches, 155 yards, two touchdowns) and DaeSean Hamilton (eight catches, 118 yards).
The offense wasn’t clicking too well in the first half, but the receivers knew it would turn around.
When Hamilton saw Moorhead’s offense in the offseason, he knew it could produce a show worth recognizing.
“We saw how special we could be,” the wideout said. “We knew how special we could be.”
When thinking about the Nittany Lions heaving the ball downfield and succeeding the way they seemingly did with ease against the Badgers’ top secondary, it was hard for him not to smile.
“You see the spectacular things we can do,” Hamilton said. “We were moving the ball up and down the field at will. ... It wasn’t any surprise to us.”
For Blacknall, it went back to McSorley. Blacknall said his quarterback, like the rest of his teammates, were overtly passionate and amped in the locker room at halftime.
The Nittany Lions scored a touchdown, a 40-yarder to Blacknall, to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 28-14 before the break.
“He was the captain of the ship,” Blacknall said of McSorley, “and he was steering us in the right direction.”
He directed them to a win in the closing seconds, too.
After Davis’ field goal, the Badgers were driving, but a crucial 4th-and-1 stop by Marcus Allen and Grant Haley with a little more than a minute to play essentially killed Wisconsin’s hopes for overtime.
All the offense had to do was not fumble, and kill the clock.
On fourth down with three ticks of the clock to go, McSorley had to handle the shotgun snap, run around for a bit, and the title was Penn State’s to have.
McSorley caught Brian Gaia’s snap, and headed toward the Penn State sideline while looking at the clock.
“Those three seconds felt like eternity,” McSorley noted.
But once the clock struck zero, he had the green light. The quarterback protected the ball and slid to the turf, sending Lucas Oil Stadium into a frenzy and clinching the Big Ten trophy for the Nittany Lions.
This is the first conference title for Penn State since sharing the honor in 2008 with Ohio State, and it’s only the Nittany Lions’ second-ever outright Big Ten championship (1994).
With the win, Penn State should make a Rose Bowl appearance on Jan. 2 if it doesn’t crack the top-four rankings and reach the College Football Playoff.
It’s a highly improbable achievement, given Penn State’s 2-2 start and middling expectations entering this season.
But the Nittany Lions got it done.
They’re champions of the conference, a wild feat led by a dynamic quarterback.