Big returns, fumbles, blown extra points and costly penalties. Special teams had it all Saturday, with difference-making, tide-turning plays throughout the game.
The biggest came late in the third quarter. With the Badgers struggling to move the ball in the second half, Jim Leonhard gave the team a spark with a 65-yard punt return for touchdown. Leonhard fielded the ball at the 35 and took advantage of a lane right at the heart of the Nittany Lions' coverage units. Leonhard then cut left and darted upfield with a nearly unabated path to the end zone.
"I saw a seam, I broke a tackle and there was nobody else there," Leonhard said. "It was great blocking."
One of the few Nittany Lions left with any chance to make a play was punter Jeremy Kapinos. As Kapinos turned to run toward Leonhard, Wisconsin's Booker Stanley laid into him, sending Kapinos flying through the air.
"I saw him coming and I couldn't believe it," Stanley said. "I kind of didn't get him as much as I wanted to, but I got a little chip off his shoulder, and it helped out. My eyes got big when I saw the guy. It was chance to get a nice block and spring Jimmy."
Following the return, though, Mike Allen missed the extra point, giving the Badgers a 23-9 lead.
The sequence encapsulated a roller coaster on special teams Saturday.
Late in the first quarter, Wisconsin had driven the Nittany Lions back, pressuring quarterback Michael Robinson into taking a sack and twice throwing the ball away. On fourth-and-18 Alex Lewis leaped after and nearly blocked Kapinos' punt attempt from deep in Penn State territory. Lewis, though, bumped Kapinos and knocked him down. Lewis was called for a personal foul, roughing the kicker penalty and Penn State retained possession at their 33.
"That is a foolish penalty," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "Those are things that upset me as a coach; that upset any coach is when you have foolish penalties. Sometimes it is just being aggressive, but roughing the kicker is uncalled for. And it gave up points."
Twelve plays and 67 yards later fullback Sean McHugh plunged into the end zone from one-yard out. A poor snap, though, resulted in a botched extra point attempt and Penn State led 9-7.
Kick coverage units turn it around
Wisconsin's kick coverage units, so beleaguered in recent weeks, became a plus Saturday, after a not-so-subtle change in tactics.
The Nittany Lions Tony Johnson took the game's opening kickoff and picked up 23 yards, but had a huge lane to run through. If not for a nice open field tackle by Levonne Rowan, Johnson would have had far more to show for his efforts.
The Badgers responded by switching to squib kicks, much as opponents employed against Wisconsin earlier this season. The first such kickoff resulted in no return with a Penn State up-back diving on top the bouncing ball.
The Nittany Lions next attempt to return a Badger squib kick resulted in a Calvin Lowery fumble. Wisconsin recovered at the Penn State 25, but could not gain a yard. Mike Allen's 43-yard field goal attempt clanged off the near goal post and the Nittany Lions dodged a bullet.
"We haven't been stellar out there," Alvarez said. "We had given up some kicks and I just felt that I was willing to give up 10 yards and spot it down there on the 30. It worked out pretty well because it was a slick ball and we knocked one loose."
Late in the first half, Lowry fielded a punt at the Penn State 12, danced behind his blockers, found a lane and darted upfield. After an 11-yard return, though, Wisconsin's Jeff Mack hit Lowry and forced a fumble. The Badgers recovered and this time took advantage as quarterback Jim Sorgi found Brandon Williams along the sideline for a 20-yard touchdown.
Morse comes up big
Wisconsin punter R.J. Morse continues to have a solid season after struggling through the 2002 campaign. Morse's 49-yard punt with less than a minute to play in the game pinned the Nittany Lions down at the one-yard line. He averaged 41.9 yards per punt on seven attempts Saturday.
Williams breaks free
Wisconsin's return game had been practically nonexistent prior to Saturday. Against the Nittany Lions, though, Brandon Williams took a kickoff five yards deep in the end zone and burst through the Penn State coverage team, giving the Badgers excellent field position at the Penn State 45. The 55-yard kick return set up a field goal, giving Wisconsin a 10-9 lead.
Up and down day for Allen
Mike Allen played his third game Saturday after returning from a hip injury suffered during preseason camp but Saturday was the first time his field goal kicking leg really received a test after kicking the game-winner in last year's Alamo Bowl.
Allen had made two field goals prior to the Penn State game—from 20 and 18 yards respectively. Saturday, Allen's first attempt from 46 yards out just cleared the cross bar, giving the Badgers a 10-9 lead. Just 25 seconds later, Allen had another attempt, this time from 43 yards. The kick hit the upright and fell no good. Allen also missed an extra point late in the third quarter.
Allen's counterpart, Robbie Gould, missed field goals from 48 and 42 yards out.
Mason debuts in return game
Ernest Mason joined Brandon Williams as a deep man on kick returns Saturday. He returned one kick, picking up 13 yards. Mason also picked up nine yards on an early second quarter reverse, his second rushing attempt of the season.