Take away the unofficial five drops by his receivers, Curt Phillips' numbers look pretty solid. Instead he goes 12-for-25 for 191 yards, but his two touchdown passes were vital, especially the one to Jeff Duckworth with 18 seconds left. We shouldn't be surprised that Phillips keeps fighting, even when things look the bleakest.
"It means a lot to me," said Phillips. "Having to fight back to be here shows how much it means to me. I wanted that one bad."
Phillips shoulders part of the blame for Wisconsin going 5-for-16 on third down against Penn State, leading to punts on eight consecutive possessions after they took a 14-7 lead, but the other half of the blame goes to the offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The coaching staff has lauded Phillips' abilities, toughness and character, but Wisconsin rarely throws the ball down the field and runs those awful inside handoffs on third down.
The play-action passing game is apparently a thing of the past, which is too bad considering it was a big factor in UW winning conference championships the last two years.
Montee Ball's 111 yards gave him his 24th 100-yard rushing performance of his career and eighth of the season. It's a good day, but it sours quickly once you realize he had 45 yards after UW's first two series. The Badgers were stymied when Penn State widened its defensive ends, forcing the Badgers to run inside towards its strong linebackers. It worked flawlessly for Penn State, who limited UW to only 38 rushing yards after halftime.
"We were able to get on the perimeter, some edges, and then they started to widen their techniques, started playing outside-in," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "We never really got back on rhythm with that."
Ball also was whistled for illegal procedure on a fourth-and-5 play in which UW converted following a pass completion.
Melvin Gordon caught his first career touchdown pass, turning a short throw from Phillips into a 57-yard TD pass on UW's first possession of the game. It was Gordon's second career reception. He didn't touch the ball again until UW's last offensive series of regulation. That was a big mistake.
Derek Watt's block on Ball's record-setting touchdown run was a thing of beauty, as the freshman took out the safety and the middle linebacker, allowing Ball to go untouched.
"They made it extremely easy for me," said Ball. "It would have been said if I didn't score."
Jeff Duckworth's touchdown catch was one of UW's designed two-point plays. Wanting to get Montee Ball in the flat, Duckworth became the option on a pick route, where he sets a pick and falls back to the middle. Duckworth ran it perfectly, catching his first touchdown in 14 games and making his first catch since week two.
That was one of the only bright spots for a receiving group that had way too many drops in critical third-down situations; the theme all season.
"I feel bad for Curt," said tight end Jacob Pedersen, who made only one catch after back-to-back weeks of having 65+ receiving yards. "We didn't make plays and had a couple drops that needed to go different ways. It all goes back to execution; you've got to make the plays when given the opportunity. We didn't do that."
To be fair, the receivers did make some important catches and Wisconsin moved the ball when it did. Jared Abbrederis led the team with three catches, including an 18-yard pickup on third-and-15 on the second-to-last drive before leaving with a head injury.
Jordan Frederick had been a nice No.3 option this season and made a key 14-yard catch on third-and-8 during UW's final drive in regulation. Kenzel Doe had a number of drops, but caught a 10-yard pass on third-and-3 that set up the Duckworth touchdown.
"You definitely want to be able to extend drives and be good on third down," said Fredrick. "We have not been that way. There were obviously a few pressures and a couple sacks. That is what kills your drives. If you have that on third downs it really kills you."
Wisconsin's offensive line was crisp and effective on its first two drives, scoring touchdowns in four plays. After that, it was a grind and UW's offensive line didn't get a good enough push between the tackles to really open up the running game. On 43 carries, Wisconsin averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, and the line gave up three sacks.
"They ran some different things we kind of picked up toward the end of the game," said sophomore right tackle Rob Havenstein. "Obviously, the beginning of the game when we kind of stalled out, second and third quarter, we were turning guys loose, just weren't playing the way we should."
Despite a grade one MCL sprain, Havenstein said he tolerated the pain because his knee was stable. Although he was juiced up to play Penn State, one has to wonder why UW wouldn't give him the extra week to make sure he was healthy.
Penn State's game plan was to pound the football up the gut of Wisconsin's defensive line and it worked with Zach Zwinak. A fullback-type body with good abilities, Zwinak set career highs in carries (36) and yards (179).
Beau Allen made a lot of plays with the amount of rushes coming at his way (six tackles) and Brendan Kelly registered one of Wisconsin's two sacks – a 13-yard takedown of Matt McGloin. Bielema has said David Gilbert is a good player and has the ability to take over the game when the ‘light bulb' goes on. Gilbert is the face of UW's defensive line, but needs to get better in the offseason. Too many times this season he is a step or two away from making a big play.
Sophomore LB Derek Landisch made his first career start, replacing the injured Chris Borland at middle linebacker. Landisch registered a career-high 11 tackles. His previous high was five at Indiana earlier this season.
Junior LB Ethan Armstong also registered a career-high 12 tackles. His previous career high was 10, done most recently last week vs. Ohio State. Senior LB Mike Taylor (11) also had double-digit tackles.
It is the second time this season UW's three starting linebackers have each had 10+ tackles in the same game (Illinois). UW's linebackers were the strength of the defense, but the coverage mix up on the 41-yard touchdown completion to Jesse James between the backers and the secondary was costly.
Wisconsin secondary shutdown another quarterback, as Matt McGloin passed for only 200 yards on 37 attempts against UW. The week before against Indiana, McGloin threw for 395 yards. Although those numbers looked good, Penn State converted 9 of 20 third downs (45 percent) and allowed completions or committed a penalty that led to six of those conversions.
Dezmen Southward led the secondary with four tackles, but missed a potential interception that could have gone for six points. It's misses like that that hurt the Badgers in the end.
"A couple of them bounced off our fingers out there," said Bielema. "Just needed to make a big play, create a turnover and get some momentum."
According to Bielema, sophomore kicker Kyle French was perfect kicking all week. Of course, French likely kicked indoors most of the week. In windy conditions, French missed a kick for the second straight week that had an impact on the game. While his 40-yard miss last week could have won the game, his 44-yard kick could have extended the game into a second overtime.
"Obviously wish I made it, always (stinks) to feel like you let the team down in a way," said French. "I wouldn't say I really feel tested. Obviously, want to do whatever I can to contribute to the team."
French said he had been hitting the ball well all day in tough conditions. He averaged 61 yards with one touchback on his four kickoffs. On his field goal attempt, French though it had a good shot of going in, but the ball flight looked ugly and got no help from the wind.
"All day it was real tough," said French. "It was swirling. It was going one way, then the other way. It was very hard to decide which way it was actually going. My main thing, I wanted to really not focus on what was happening around me and really focus on what I was doing on the field. If you hit a clean ball it'll go straight no matter what."
Drew Meyer capped a remarkable regular season by hitting three of his eight punts inside the 20 with only one touchback and had a long of 53. Doe had a 47-yard and 44-yard kickoff return to give the return game a spark, but UW could only convert one into points. A week after poor punt coverage led to a decisive Ohio State touchdown, Wisconsin held Penn State to an average of three yards on its three returns.