Penn State lost to the 17th-ranked Badgers, 13-3, Saturday afternoon. The Lions looked typically intense on defense and typically snakebitten on offense. But the final score was only a part of the drama, and not a particularly big part.
Early in the third quarter, Joe Paterno went down when Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless and Wisconsin linebacker DeAndre Levy tumbled into him after a catch on the sideline. Doctors strapped a brace on the coachs left leg and wheeled him off the field in a cart a little while later.
Penn State officials had no word on Paternos condition in the immediate aftermath of the game. On replays, it appeared as though Levy bowled into his left knee, causing it to buckle. Those who saw the accident said Paterno appeared to be in considerable pain.
It looked pretty tough on Coach, linebacker Dan Connor said. All we were told was that he hurt his leg so I dont know much about what happened. But it looked pretty painful for him.
Its been a rough season for the 79-year-old coach. Bothered by the flu, he had to leave the field during the Ohio State game. A few days later, he was injured in practice when Quarless and Lydell Sargeant collided with him at the end of a play.
Still, Paternos resiliency is legendary. He has missed only two games since joining the Penn State coaching staff in 1950. The game at Ohio State in September was the first in which he ever had to leave the sideline.
It was that Joe Paterno the stubborn, rub-some-dirt-on-it competitor who players and coaches were bearing in mind when they talked about his prognosis for next weeks home game against Temple and beyond.
Ive seen him get hit a couple of times, and hes a wiry old rascal, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. Hes not going anywhere. Hes pretty tough. I know not to ask him [if hes OK], because hes just going to wave me off.
Paterno wont like what he sees when he goes back to watch the tape of Penn States loss. The Lions (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) might have missed out on their best scoring opportunity when safety Donnie Johnson dropped a pass intended for Andy Crooks. Johnson had a path to the end zone, but he couldnt hold onto the ball with the Lions trailing 10-3 and looking to get back in the game in the third quarter.
Donnie was right in perfect position, Bradley said. He just has to catch it. We talk all the time about making the big turnover, scoring on defense. Were always talking about that, and that certainly would have turned the whole game around right there. We needed that big spark to get us going.
On the ensuing punt, the ball brushed against Sargeant, and Wisconsin recovered, taking over at the Penn State 20. Although the defense kept Wisconsin (9-1, 6-1) out of the end zone, Taylor Mehlhaff was able to boost the lead to 13-3 on a 20-yard field goal. The Lions didnt have enough offense to rally from two scores down. Said Bradley, We had to play a little differently when they went up by 10.
The Lions defense turned in another feisty performance. It was an especially noteworthy day for Paul Posluszny. The senior linebacker surpassed Greg Buttle as Penn States all-time leading tackler, making 14 stops to bring his career total to 349. Buttle made 343 tackles before finishing his All-America career in 1975.
Paul is the heart and soul of our defense, said Bradley, who played with Buttle at Penn State. It couldnt happen to a more deserving, finer young man than Paul Posluszny. Thats a record that will take a long time to break.
Maybe so, but Posluszny was in no mood to celebrate afterward.
This was a huge game, and we lost, he said. [The record] means something, but we would much rather have had the win.
Trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Lions tried to blitz their way back into the game. Sean Lee knocked the ball loose from Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco, giving he Lions the ball at the Wisconsin 40–yard line with 10 minutes, 7 seconds remaining. But the offense couldnt capitalize. The Lions drive ended when Tony Hunt was stacked up for a 4-yard loss on a pitch play on fourth-and-1.
That was an all-too-familiar sensation for the Lions. They managed only 201 yards as a team, with quarterback Anthony Morelli supplying 165 yards on 19-of-35 passing. A week after rushing for 142 yards at Purdue, Hunt managed only 35 on 11 carries.
We knew coming in that Hunt was a guy who, in my opinion, was very patient with his blockers, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. He is able to understand exactly where he is supposed to be on every play. As the game unfolded, because our defense is playing so well against certain things they were trying to do, that is why they decided to go to more of the passing game.
With most observers predicting a low-scoring game, the two defense-savvy teams lived up to their advance billing in the first half. First, they exchanged field goals, with Mehlhaff making a 37-yarder on the last play of the first quarter and Kevin Kelly answering with a 39-yarder in the second quarter.
Then they exchanged turnovers. The Lions had a chance to take the lead after a blitzing Connor slammed into Stocco, forcing a fumble that Lee recovered on the Wisconsin 14-yard line. But the Lions possession lasted just one play. Roderick Rogers intercepted a tipped pass intended for Derrick Williams and Wisconsin neutralized the threat.
The Badgers interception highlighted a frustrating trend for Penn State. The Lions have been ineffective in the red zone all season, ranking 10th in the conference going into Saturdays game with a 75 percent success rate. In the first half against the Badgers, they got just three points on two forays inside the Wisconsin 20. Eventually, Wisconsin made them pay.
Late in the half, the Badgers put together their best drive, marching 54 yards on eight plays and converting a fourth-and-1, albeit only by inches, to reach the Penn State 14. With 23 seconds left, Paul Hubbard caught a Stocco pass with Anthony Scirrotto draped over his back in the end zone. The kick gave Wisconsin a 10-3 lead.
The Lions never quite recovered. Paterno left for the locker room looking testy, and though he couldnt have known it at the time, things would only get worse in the second half.
The Lions now find themselves at a crossroads. Theyve lost their four games against ranked opponents and are running out of chances to prove themselves. And underlying that disappointing reality is a more immediate problem.
Were back to what Coach always talks about youve got to make a play, Bradley said. You saw it today with Donnie Johnson. Youve got to make a play when it counts in the clutch. Sometimes, we have [done it]. But today, we needed a play and we couldnt come up with it.