When the door leading from Penn State’s locker room opened allowing Bill O’Brien to walk into the visiting team media room at Camp Randall Stadium, the voices of 62 Nittany Lion football players filtered out.
Suddenly, the rowdy shouts, hollers and cheers went silent as the heavy door shut behind O’Brien. But they didn’t stop. The celebrations of Nittany Lion players relishing their 31-24 win over Wisconsin could be heard each time a one of them walked out of the locker room.
“That’s your bowl right there,” O’Brien said of his team, which is banned from postseason play. “We came out on top against a very good team. A team that was ranked 15th in the country and deservedly so.”
And a team that was pegged by oddsmakers in Las Vegas as 24-point favorites. While Penn State players take little interest in betting lines for gambling purposes, they took much offense to the notion that the Badgers (9-3, 6-2) would roll right over them.
Instead, it was Penn State (7-5, 3-4) that got rolling first.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 21 of 30 passes to seven different receivers for 339 yards and threw four touchdown passes. The first went to Adam Breneman on the fourth play of the game. Hackenberg fired over the middle to the tight end, who outran Wisconsin defenders for a 68-yard score.
Geno Lewis added two touchdown catches — a three-yarder on which he was uncovered and another via a 59-yard bullet from Hackenberg over two defenders. Jesse James beat Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward for another. Each time, Penn State’s 18-year-old quarterback put the football on target.
Afterward, the true freshman quarterback, who continuously stretched the field and kept a usually sturdy Badgers secondary on its heels, reflected on his first season.
“I came in, had to fit right in and start playing,” Hackenberg said. “I’d never played at this level before so I think it’s a testament to the team being able to execute with a young guy under center early on this season. And then I felt like with the more experience I had, the more comfortable I felt and I think Coach O’Brien felt more comfortable with me and the receivers and offensive line.”
Hackenberg looked as comfortable as ever in the pocket — and outside of it — on the Camp Randall turf.
Overall, Hackenberg completed 70 percent of his passes and picked up 10 first downs with his arm. After Wisconsin built a 14-7 lead when quarterback Joel Stave connected with Brian Wozniak and Jeff Duckworth for touchdown throws on back-to-back second-quarter drives, Hackenberg pulled his team even with a toss made easier by a quick read.
After leading his offense up to the Wisconsin 3-yard line, Hackenberg spied Lewis uncovered to his left and quickly called for the snap as Badgers coach Gary Andersen was in full stride down the sideline trying to call a timeout. Before Andersen could motion for a stoppage, Hackenberg flicked the ball out to Lewis who stepped across the goal line.
In the third quarter, Hackenberg led a 10-play, 67-yard drive in which he connected on five of six throws for 54 yards. He finished with a precise throw to James in the corner of the end zone. While Southward had tight coverage on James, the Wisconsin safety wasn’t looking toward the line of scrimmage. Hackenberg said he wanted to give James a chance to make a play and James did by going up and catching the ball over Southward’s head.
Hackenberg had another highlight reel throw on tap.
After cornerback Trevor Williams intercepted Stave early in the fourth quarter, Hackenberg dropped back on third-and-7 from his team’s 41. Wisconsin linebacker Brendan Kelly flew around the right side of Penn State’s offensive line unblocked and on a direct path to the Penn State quarterback.
A fraction of a second before Kelly — the Badgers’ sacks leader — got to him, Hackenberg fired a dart and hit Lewis in-stride over two defenders down the sideline for a 59-yard score. The throw put Penn State up 31-14 with just under 13 minutes to play and drew the praise of Hackenberg’s teammates.
“It just shows how talented Christian is,” Breneman said. “But not only is he talented, he works so hard and he’s so good mentally and has such great poise. Some of those throws he makes are just pure talent. Him getting blown up and making a throw 60 yards downfield is just pure talent.”
But the Badgers weren’t done.
Wisconsin mounted a 13-play scoring drive in just 2:29 and pulled within 10 points when Stave hit Wozniak from five yards out. Jack Russell capped a six-play drive with a 48-yard field goal that just hooked in over the crossbar to make it a seven-point game with 4:13 to play.
“We knew it wasn’t over,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “It was kind of a change in defensive philosophy at that point. Keep them in bounds, try to minimize the damage. We wanted to play tough but they’re a good team too. We didn’t panic. We just kept playing.”
But the Badgers turned desperate after Penn State ate 3:37 off the clock with a seven-play drive into Wisconsin territory that ended when Ficken missed a 31-yard field goal.
With just 31 seconds, Stave steered his offense to the Penn State 41 where he launched a Hail Mary that was intercepted by Ryan Keiser. All the while, Hackenberg and his teammates were screaming on the sideline.
He was hoarse as he talked to reporters after the game with some of that yelling coming during the game and some of it afterward in the locker room.
“It got a little loud there at the end,” Hackenberg said.