Wisconsin-Penn State grades: Passing game fuels Nittany Lions’ Big Ten title

Penn State breaks game open in second half with big plays through the air to claim conference championship.

| 7 months ago
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

Wisconsin-Penn State grades: Passing game fuels Nittany Lions’ Big Ten title

Penn State Nittany Lions 38, Wisconsin Badgers 31

Here are the top-graded players and biggest takeaways from Penn State’s 38-31 Big Ten championship win over Wisconsin:

Penn State Nittany Lions

Quarterback grade: Trace McSorley, 80.1

McSorley drops the hammer on Wisconsin’s secondary

After an inconsistent start to his first season as Penn State’s starter, Trace McSorley flourished as the regular season went on, and he had arguably his best performance of the season on Saturday as Penn State claimed its first Big Ten title since 2008. Topping 300 yards passing for the third time in the last four games, McSorley and his receivers exposed Wisconsin’s secondary down the field, in the process moving the Nittany Lions’ gunslinger past Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield into third place for the most passing yards from deep passes on the season with 1,472. McSorley has improved week by week since Penn State’s heavy defeat against Michigan ,and his willingness to take chances down the field will give Penn State a chance whomever their bowl opponent may be.

Top offensive grades:

WR Saeed Blacknall, 84.4

WR DaeSean Hamilton, 81.3

RG Connor McGovern, 74.6

RB Saquon Barkley, 74.5

TE Mike Gesicki, 71.1

Big plays bring Penn State back

In the first half it looked like Wisconsin was going to grind Penn State out of the Big Ten title game and put itself on the fringes of the College Football Playoff discussion, but quick-strike touchdowns on either side of the half turned the tide in Penn State’s favor. Saeed Blacknall scored from 40 and 70 yards out, exploiting poor angles in the Wisconsin secondary to bring the Nittany Lions back from the brink. He was joined in a 100-yard receiving game by DaeSean Hamilton, while tight end Mike Gesicki pulled in a terrific deep touchdown grab as Penn State’s sole resistance to Wisconsin’s power attack for much of the first half. Running back Saquon Barkley was kept under wraps for much of the night, but even he was able to chip in with a short touchdown lunge to pull Penn State level for the first time since the first quarter, midway through the third.

Top defensive grades:

LB Manny Bowen, 82.0

CB John Reid, 78.1

CB Grant Haley, 77.1

DT Parker Cothren, 73.8

DE Garrett Sickels, 67.9

Nittany Lions tighten up in the second half

Right up until Wisconsin’s missed field goal early in the second half it looked like the Nittany Lions didn’t have an answer for the Badgers’ physical ground game. But big plays by the offense sparked a somewhat stronger second half showing from the Penn State defense, with the likes of FS Marcus Allen and CB Grant Haley stepping up to make decisive plays against the run to hold Wisconsin’s one-dimensional offense to three second-half points. Allen and Haley combined for the decisive fourth down stop at the end of the game, with the interior defense tying up blockers to leave Allen unblocked to finish off Corey Clement — after Haley beat fullback Austin Ramesh to get to the Badgers’ ball-carrier behind the line of scrimmage.


Wisconsin Badgers

Quarterback grade: Bart Houston, 63.0

Conservative attack keeps Houston grounded

It was clear from the outset that Wisconsin was never going to air the ball out with Bart Houston under center. This was a game to be won by the Badgers’ ground game, and for 33 minutes that looked like a winning recipe. Only five of Houston’s 21 passes were aimed 10 or more yards down the field, never testing Penn State’s cornerbacks, who between them were only targeted a combined five times, yielding only 18 yards on those targets. Even in the clutch, Houston was doing little more than tossing long hand-offs to his backs and tight ends off of play-action, and Penn State did enough to clamp down on Wisconsin in the second half.

Top offensive grades:

RG Beau Benzschawel, 78.9

TE Eric Steffes, 78.1

LT Ryan Ramczyk, 76.6

TE Troy Fumagalli, 74.9

LG Jon Dietzen, 71.8

Badgers come up just short against the East, again

Just as they did against Michigan and Ohio State, the Badgers came up just shy of a win against one of the top three teams in the Big Ten’s East division. Their only three losses came against teams that will finish in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings. Similar to their game against Ohio State, this was a game that started well — extremely well — for the Wisconsin offense, but slipped away as the game went on. Wisconsin exploded out of the gate getting huge gains behind LT Ryan Ramczyk, but being unable to hold a big lead with such a commanding running game will be a bitter pill to swallow. Execution slipped in the second half and forced the Badgers off schedule, and their passing game was never likely to get them back ahead of the chains.

Top defensive grades:

ILB Ryan Connelly, 89.3

OLB Vince Biegel, 80.8

OLB T.J. Watt, 80.2

ILB T.J. Edwards, 76.9

NT Olive Sagapolu, 74.5

A night to forget for Wisconsin’s secondary

Conspicuous by their absence in the list of the top five grades for Wisconsin’s defense are any members of the secondary. Sojourn Shelton was the only defensive back who played more than 20 snaps to earn a grade over 50. While Wisconsin’s starting linebackers shared 15 defensive stops between them and T.J. Watt beat Saquon Barkley for Wisconsin’s only sack of the game, the Badgers’ secondary was penalized twice, missed five tackles, and allowed 345 of Trace McSorley’s passing yards. Bad angles in space and poor decisions as the clock wound down at the end of the first half swung momentum decisively in Penn State’s favor, and the Wisconsin defense never wrestled it back.

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

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