STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Sam Ficken hit a 37-yard field goal in overtime, and Wisconsin’s Kyle French attempt from 45 yards went wide left to seal Penn State’s 24-21 win Saturday in an emotional season finale in Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) could have ended it for good a play earlier, but linebacker Glenn Carson dropped a potential interception.
Still, the Beaver Stadium faithful celebrated anyway after French’s miss on Senior Day capped a challenging year that began with landmark sanctions from the NCAA for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.
Quarterback Curt Phillips found Jeff Duckworth for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds left for Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4) to make it 21-all and send the game into overtime.
Badgers star running back Montee Ball ran for 111 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, and set the NCAA record with his 97th career score.
But his record-setting day was overshadowed by bruising Penn State running back Zach Zwinak (career-high 179 yards and one score) and the late-game heroics of Ficken, who made all three field-goal attempts on the afternoon.
The last one made it just inside the left upright through light flurries — but it was good enough for the decisive score.
The players rushed in jubilation after French’s missed kick. Injured star linebacker Michael Mauti raised his hands in victory as he hobbled with his teammates to the sing alma mater in front of the student section.
Mauti and the seniors were instrumental in helping to keep most of the team together after the NCAA levied its landmark sanctions in July. Most preseason prognosticators thought the Nittany Lions wouldn’t even finish with a winning record this year.
Instead, they rallied to win eight of 10 after an 0-2 start.
“This is a very special team because of the players and because of these seniors,” first-year coach Bill O’Brien said.
Penn State’s uptempo “NASCAR” offense was frustrated in the first half before roaring back after halftime. Quarterback Matt McGloin found Jesse James crossing over the middle on fourth-and 6, and the freshman tight end outraced cornerback Darius Hillary to the front pylon of the end zone with 13:32 left in the game. Zwinak ran for a 2-point conversion to make it 21-14.
But the Badgers weren’t done at chilly Beaver Stadium.
A drive before Phillips connected with Duckworth for the game-tying score, Wisconsin got to the 20, but senior safety Jacob Fagnano stepped in front of a double-covered receiver Jared Abbredaris on fourth-and-8 to intercept Phillips. He finished 12 of 25 passing for 191 yards with touchdowns and score.
Wisconsin lost its second straight — not the kind of momentum coach Bret Bielema was hoping for entering next week’s Big Ten title game.
The Badgers finished the regular season in third place in the Leaders Division behind unbeaten Ohio State andPenn State, but still claimed the title game berth because the two teams ahead of them are ineligible due to sanctions.
Penn State’s season is over, but O’Brien had the Nittany Lions playing with grit and determination all year long amid unprecedented circumstances and media scrutiny. The fans at 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium, which was about two-thirds full on a cold afternoon, roared with approval for their beloved Nittany Lions, especially the injured Mauti.
The defense could have used its star linebacker, especially in up-and-down first quarter highlighted by Ball’s record-setting run from 17 yards with 6:27 left in the first quarter for a 14-7 Wisconsin lead.
The senior tailback clutched the ball tightly in his right arm while getting pats on the helmet from teammates following his 79th career touchdown, broke a tie for the major college mark previously set by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio) in 1999.
But with Mauti out, Carson (13 tackles) and defensive tackle Jordan Hill (12 tackles, two sacks) took over down the stretch. Hill was a constant presence in the Wisconsin backfield to frustrate Phillips and Ball.
Wisconsin played without its own star linebacker in Chris Borland, who sat out his second straight game with a right hamstring injury.
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