Although the Badgers scored 10 points within a minute, 25 seconds late in the fourth quarter, keep alive a sliver of hope to pull a senior-day miracle, the Badgers couldn't make up for a poor offensive performance against a tough Penn State defense in a 31-24 humbling setback at Camp Randall Stadium in the regular season finale.
From the first series on, the Badgers' offense struggled to get into a consistent rhythm against a defense that had given up 43.7 points per game in three true road games. Ranking 18th in the country in total offense, the Badgers were held to only 120 yards rushing – their second-lowest mark of the season – and UW's usual-sturdy offensive line gave up three sacks and six quarterback hurries.
When asked about Wisconsin's poor offensive showing, coach Gary Andersen put it bluntly.
"Football becomes really hard to play…when you can't protect the passer consistently," Andersen said. "It's a bad spot to be in. On top of that when they stack 9, 10, 11 guys in the box, depending on the personnel you're in, and they take away your run game, football becomes very, very difficult."
The passing game wasn't working either. Although quarterback Joel Stave threw for a career-high 339 yards on 53 pass attempts, the sophomore sail passes over his receiver's heads and threw three into the arms of a Penn State defense. He also fell victim to more than a handful of drops from his receivers.
Even when Wisconsin managed to move the ball, the Badgers saw drives end in Penn State territory because of interceptions or poor execution. UW managed only three touchdowns and a field goal on eight drives on to the Nittany Lions' side of the field.
"I mean, that's kind of how it was," Stave said. "Just a herky-jerky day. Sometimes we were moving the ball, we were moving it smooth, getting it up and down the field. Other times we're putting ourselves in tough positions, third-and whatever. I thought we did a pretty good job of converting a few big third downs. But we just have to be able to maintain drives."
With Penn State's consistently pressure, Wisconsin never got the big hit its offense had become accustomed to throughout the season. Averaging seven plays of at least 20 yards per game on the season, Wisconsin managed only four such plays against Penn State, and none in the running game.
"We didn't run the ball well tonight," Andersen said. "Whatever the rushing yards are or per carries or whatever it may be, there's no explosive runs. That's two weeks in a row where you can't sit back and say we ran the football well. We don't have explosive runs, and we've got to have explosive plays somewhere. When you don't have those explosive plays, again, football gets very hard."
Senior offensive lineman Ryan Groy felt like the Badgers were close to busting some big runs, but again came down to lack of execution.
"It was there; we were a couple of blocks away every time," said Groy. "The scheme was there and the assignment was there. We just couldn't finish."
With Penn State following Minnesota's game plan of the week before by loading the box, daring Wisconsin to run, the Badgers' ineffectiveness through the middle two quarters saw the Badgers throw an uncharacteristic 59 times compared to just 30 runs.
"They're putting a lot of guys in the box, and having safeties down in the box," said white. "It's difficult to run the ball when there are safeties down there. So we have to be able to throw the ball and capitalize on the opportunities we get to throw it down the field.
"We had to make those opportunities, we were playing a good team … and we didn't."