INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State might not be representing the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff, but it is the champion of the best conference in college football.
The seventh-ranked Nittany Lions won the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, adding another signature win to their Playoff resume with a 38-31 win over the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.
The immediate conversation, of course, turns to the Playoff and how that despite capturing the conference title, Penn State seems to have a slim chance of reaching the final four and competing for a national championship. Second-ranked Ohio State, which didn't play on Saturday night, looks like a Playoff lock. Same with top-ranked Alabama, which won the SEC Championship Game on Saturday and boasts an undefeated record. Fourth-ranked Washington won the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night and looked mighty impressive in doing so, seemingly punching its ticket to the Playoff. And then of course there's fifth-ranked Michigan, another Big Ten team not playing on Saturday but still under consideration thanks to its exceptional resume.
But Penn State has played like a Playoff-caliber team this season, and Saturday's win confirmed it, the Lions storming back from a three-touchdown deficit in the first half and scoring on five straight drives as Trace McSorley led yet another second-half comeback.
The selection committee will announce the four-team field Sunday. Has Penn State done enough to jump some teams and get into the Playoff?
Perhaps needing an exceptionally dominant performance to earn a berth, Wisconsin looked determined to turn one in early. The Badgers marched 81 yards on their first possession, getting a pair of huge third-down conversions from Bart Houston, a helpful late-hit penalty on Penn State and a one-yard touchdown plunge from full back Austin Ramesh to take an early 7-0 lead. The explosion came one the next possession — after the Badger defense had forced a second straight three and out — when Corey Clement busted off a 67-yard touchdown run, getting superb blocking en route to a 14-0 lead.
Penn State punched back, doing what it's done best during its eight-game win streak: getting big plays from its offense. Saquon Barkley rushed for 22 yards, McSorley completed a 16-yard pass, and then McSorley bombed a throw to the end zone, where tight end Mike Gesicki made an incredible leaping grab for a touchdown and to cut it to a one-score game.
The Lions finally forced a Badger punt, but five plays into the ensuing series a high snap bounced over McSorley's head and right into the arms of Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, who returned the fumble 12 yards for another Badger touchdown, making it a 21-7 game.
James Franklin made a questionable decision the next time Penn State had the ball, going for it on fourth down from his own 42-yard line. McSorley was pressured — a common theme throughout the first half — and threw the ball out of bounds, giving Wisconsin a short field. The Badgers capitalized, Dare Ogunbowale polishing off the short drive with a seven-yard touchdown run to make it 28-7.
Penn State had one more strike in it in the first half, though, going 90 yards downfield, the last 40 of which came on a McSorley touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall, a touchdown when Wisconsin safety Lubern Figaro whiffed on the tackle and allowed Blacknall to waltz into the end zone. That score made it 28-14 right before halftime.
The Badgers started out the second half with Andrew Endicott's miss on a 48-yard field-goal try, and the Lions pounced on that opportunity, flexing their second-half muscles with a 70-yard bomb of a touchdown pass from McSorley to Blacknall on the very next play to make it 28-21.
After Houston avoided disaster for Wisconsin by recovering his own fumble on third down, Penn State marched right down the field, picking up several big gains en route to a game-tying touchdown, Barkley plowing in from a yard out to even the score at 28.
The Badgers responded with a great offensive sequence, getting 20-plus-yard gainers from Clement and Bradrick Shaw. But the drive stalled out in the red zone, and Wisconsin booted a chip-shot field goal to retake the lead, this one at 31-28.
Nothing about the Lions' offensive attack was stalling, though, with McSorley continuing to pitch the ball all over the field, with his receivers making terrific catches for huge gains. McSorley hit DaeSean Hamilton for gains of 38 and 25 yards before lofting a perfect pass to Barkley in the end zone for another Penn State touchdown. The offense looked unstoppable in taking a 35-31 lead, ending a fourth straight drive with a touchdown. McSorley & Co. made it five straight scoring drives on their next possession, Penn State marching downfield — with the help of a couple 15-yard penalties on Wisconsin — and getting a 24-yard field goal from Tyler Davis to boost the lead to 38-31.
The Badgers moved downfield late in the fourth, trying for a game-tying score, but Penn State stopped Clement short of the line to gain on fourth and 1, sealing the victory.
Regardless of Penn State's Playoff fate, the Lions' journey under Franklin, from the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal to a Big Ten championship, has been remarkable.