Tested to its Limits

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema doesn't know when his players are going to be rewarded for all the trauma they've endured during, but Wisconsin's 24-21 overtime setback at Penn State in the regular season finale only adds to the frustration of a 2012 season.

STATE COLLEGE, PA. - A meaningless game never stung so deeply.

Never in Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's long tenure had he been a part of or known a team to go to three overtime games and come out of the losing end in three bitter finishes.

"It's not a record I want to set," Bielema deadpanned. "You always think you get tested in ways that only the strong survive. We're obviously getting a lesson beyond our years."

Wisconsin's emotional heartstrings received another mighty tug when Kyle French's 44-yard missed field goal failed to extend overtime, giving host Penn State a 24-21 victory in front of 93,505.

"We have to finish it," said senior Curt Phillips, who for the second straight week led Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) to the tying score in the final 20 seconds but came up short in overtime. "We were in a position to win it. We've been to three overtimes and we haven't finished."

Wisconsin's offense provided another sporadic performance: hot to start, cold for eight straight series, hot to finish the game and comatose in overtime.

Penn State (8-4, 6-2) had allowed only six points and no touchdowns in the first quarter through the team's first 11 games, so it seemed like a good sign of things to come when the Badgers scored on their first two drives and racked up 127 yards on just eight plays.

It turned out to be a marriage. Wisconsin hardly moved the ball and scored no points on its next nine possessions. UW only managed 141 yards on 43 plays, which included Wisconsin's 11-play, 59-yard drive that ended with a fourth-down interception with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

"I think we're running out of dogs, running out of guys that can get it done in the fourth quarter and in overtime," said Bielema. "The good news is we're in the games. ... Obviously, we've got to pull these things through."

Penn State wasn't much better after scoring on its first drive, as the Nittany Lions final five drives of the first half ended with a punt or time expiring. Penn State was a different animal, however, in the third quarter. Controlling the ball for 10:40 of the quarter and outgaining Wisconsin, 146-17, Penn State converted two of its drives into field goals and scored on a 41-yard pass play from Matt McGloin to Jesse James on fourth-and-six early in the fourth quarter.

All three of the scoring was set up by tailback Zach Zwinak ability to run the football, as the sophomore set career highs in carries (36) and rushing yards (179).

"I felt like this one, we would definitely be able to close it out," said junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong, who finished with a career-high 12 tackles. "I felt like it was going to be our time. It's disappointing."

Yet somehow Phillips managed to put the Badgers in position to win again. After getting picked off on a fourth-down attempt inside the Penn State red zone on the second-to-last drive, Phillips drove Wisconsin 66 yards in 14 plays, throwing a touchdown pass to Jeff Duckworth – who was only in the game because Jared Abbrederis went down with a head injury earlier in the quarter - with 18 seconds remaining.

"You've just got to step in when you're called, you've got to be ready," said Duckworth. "You've just got to step up whenever you've got the chance. You've always got to be ready. When Jared went down you have to step in for him."

With nothing to play for, Bielema said the plan was to go for the two-point conversion following the touchdown, but the planned play was scrapped after it was used to get Duckworth into the end zone.

"I didn't want to come back and run the exact same play again," said Bielema.

Despite having the momentum for the second straight game heading into the extra session, Wisconsin's offense petered. After Wisconsin's defense did its job, holding Penn State to a 37-yard field goal, Wisconsin saw Ball stuffed for one yard on first down, was fortunate when Kyle Costigan recovered a Phillips fumble after a blindside hit and was even more fortunate when Glenn Carson dropped a pointblank interception.

It was all another big tease, as French hooked a 44-yard field goal attempt to force a second overtime.

"Obviously I wish I could have made that," said French. "It's a hard kick to go into. At the end of the day, I can't sit there and keep thinking about it, I need to move on and start looking forward to Nebraska."

Scoring on a 17-yard toss with 6:27 left in the first quarter to give Wisconsin a 13-7 lead, Montee Ball's 18th touchdown of the season broke the career mark previously held by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio). Prentice scored 78 touchdowns from 1996-1999. His day was virtually nonexistent after that, as Ball finished with 111 yards.

Even though he was plagued by drops by his receivers, Phillips finished 12-for-25 with 191 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

"He got his tail knocked off a couple of times and bounced back every time," Bielema said of Phillips. "He knows that when he comes off of the field, he and Matt (Canada) have great conversations about where the ball was going to go, if it went and what they felt good about coming into the next series."

Not only have the Badgers lost three of their last four, but it's the first time Wisconsin has lost consecutive games since 2009. Not the ideal situation to enter a conference championship but the fact that Wisconsin is even going to play in the Big Ten championship game as the third place team is a blessing.

"When we left yesterday from Camp Randall and Nebraska had beaten Iowa, there was a sparkle in our guys' eyes that they were going to get the chance to play in that game," said Bielema, whose team fell to 2-5 in games decided by one score or less this season.

"Where you have an early season loss similar to what we did, I know that that will be our rally cry and I think I need to be really, really smart. We backed off on this week physically and the amount of contact. We have played a lot of physical games and it is clearly taking a toll.

"They're going to get rewarded for (going through this). I don't know if it's going to come Saturday, if it's going to come in the bowl game, or five years from now in their lives, they're going to take these things and learn."

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