INDIANAPOLIS — Even as simplicity sprinkled across the land, and the College Football Playoff looked bound to feature Alabama, Ohio State, Washington and Clemson, two teams persisted in playing here inside Lucas Oil Stadium. They did not switch off the lights and exit early. They played for some doohickey called a “Big Ten championship,” and it mattered to them clearly.
Because Washington had won the Pac-12 Conference emphatically on Friday and Clemson went about winning the ACC on Saturday night, No. 7 Penn State and No. 6 Wisconsin seemed to play for the right to bemoan. The two of them made fine football theatre of it on the way to Penn State’s 38-31 win that trumpeted its football resurgence.
The Nittany Lions (11-2) withstood the kind of play that rattles around brains during nightmares. They took the anticipated mighty hits from Wisconsin (10-3), such as those blasted onto quarterback Trace McSorley. They hurriedly climbed out of a 28-7 chasm. They showed again, by extending their post-halftime mastery over nine straight victims to a pulverizing 239-56, that while the outstanding Coach James Franklin seems to give tepid pre-game speeches, his halftime bits must be doozies.
Actually, the leading players give speeches, and actually, nobody knows why Penn State aces the second half.
“That’s a really good question,” said the star running back Saquon Barkley. “I don’t know.”
“If there was an exact formula,” McSorley said, “I wish I could say. It’s different every time.”
“We don’t want to be a second-half team,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said, “but that’s just how things have worked out all season.”
Then their locker room kept bustling on past midnight, and their buses would take them off to the wilds of December arguments regarding the College Football Playoff, to be announced come midday Sunday. Franklin began from the field: “What I do know is we just won the toughest conference in college football. They say you’re allowed to overcome early setbacks. We’ve done that. It’s on you now, the Selection Committee.”
Instead, that 12-member committee studying football from a boardroom in Texas almost certainly will forge a first in the wee three-year history of the playoff concept: a conference-championship match that produced a conference champion that doesn’t figure to reach the playoff even though a different team from its conference probably will.
That team, Ohio State (11-1), spent Saturday doing nothing more than letting bruises heal seven days after some Wolverines dealt them. It also spent Saturday with a nice vista from the lofty No. 2 position, well above either Penn State or Wisconsin, even though it did not win its division and did not defeat Penn State when they met. It also glowed, however, with three wins over top-10 teams: Wisconsin, Michigan and, most helpfully, Oklahoma, and it looked to become the first of the 12 teams in the first three playoffs to lack a conference title.
If not, there will be noise.
If so, there will be noise.
All of that noise might drown out Penn State’s stunning rehabilitation of a season that once stood in a 2-2 heap after a 49-10 obliteration in Ann Arbor. As some of its talkative fans seemed to crave the unemployment of Franklin in his third year, the coach who did magical things at academic powerhouse Vanderbilt kept keeping on. By the time his team made its unexpected arrival in Indianapolis, it majored in wherewithal and large plays.
Its name will grace its stadium as a champion five years after the longtime kingpin had cratered in scandal and probation. “For us to be up there forever means a lot,” Hamilton said, as it means they mastered situations that could have addled the less-sturdy. One such horror happened in the second quarter on a third-and-1 from Penn State’s 31-yard line, when McSorley stood in the shotgun formation, then went to the line, then looked to the sideline, then backed as expected to the shotgun, then watched the snap sail nightmarishly over his head.
As he chased it backward and tried to pounce on it, the ball bounced upward to linebacker Ryan Connelly, who breezed in 12 yards for a touchdown. That made it 21-7 on the way to 28-7.
With its knowhow fully formed, Penn State knew what to do. It tied the game fast enough to supply whiplash. It finished a 90-yard, eight-play trip with McSorley’s pass to Saeed Blacknall on the left flank, whereupon cornerback Lubern Figaro misjudged the play, so that Blacknall caught the ball, turned around and sort of waltzed the final 30 yards to the end zone just before halftime.
McSorley throws a mean deep ball, so he did so just after halftime went far down the middle to Blacknall, who caught it and continued past an overreacting safety for a 70-yard touchdown. Wisconsin couldn’t much budge, and now Penn State went 63 more yards in eight plays, scattering passes to three receivers.
While steering Penn State ahead 35-31 early in the fourth quarter, he popped passes of 38 and 25 yards to Hamilton before throwing a beauty to Barkley for an 18-yard touchdown. From there, the Nittany Lions always led, another of their smashing second halves in progress, until finally, as Wisconsin threatened one last time with a 38-31 deficit and a 51-yard march, cornerback Grant Haley fought off a block to stop Corey Clement on a fourth-and-1, and Penn State was off to exult and to argue.