MADISON, Wis. — These were the kinds of games Penn State lost last year, games they failed to win despite having a huge advantage in total yards and time of possession.
The Nittany Lions opened their season Saturday in reverse, losing the time-of-possession battle by more than 24 minutes against No. 12 Wisconsin and being outdone in offensive plays, 95-51. But this time it was the Badgers shaking their heads thanks to an outstanding defensive effort by the visitors and some timely big plays on offense.
The 19th-ranked Lions’ 16-10 victory over Wisconsin before a crowd of 76,832 at Camp Randall Stadium was a definite confidence builder. It was only James Franklin’s second win as head coach over a ranked team on the road, the other being at Iowa in 2019, and perhaps a top-five career win overall.
It was a gutsy performance in a hostile environment where the Badgers crossed midfield on six of their 13 drives and entered the red zone four times, yet came away with only 10 points in their 42 minutes, 24 seconds of possession time.
“Obviously, when you can go on the road and find a way to protect the lead against that type of team and that type of offense in that crowd and everything like that, yeah, there’s tremendous confidence that can come from this,” Franklin said afterward.
“We see it across the board in college football — an early-season big win can do a lot of good. But all that matters is we learn from it, we correct the [mistakes on] film, and then find a way to do it next week, or the [media] questions won’t be as nice.”
Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said his team’s performance proved something to the team and to the outside world.
“It’s confidence,” he said. “I think we showed we can play with anybody in the country. I know Wisconsin is a great team. They’re ranked high, and we went out there and got the job done. So that builds confidence. That’s the standard we’ve got to keep reaching.”
Last year, the Nittany Lions held lopsided statistical advantages twice on the road, at Indiana and at Nebraska, averaging almost 500 total yards in the two games, yet flew home both times experiencing the bitter taste of defeat.
Mustipher said defensive line coach John Scott actually brought up the Indiana game to his guys on the sideline.
“Coach Scott mentioned it to us, it was the same situation,” he said. “So it kind of flashed back in my mind like, if we want to win this game we’ve got to stop them in the red zone, and we did that. At the end last year, we didn’t get the job done. I’m happy we did today.”
Two of the primary finishers were safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown, former Lackawanna College teammates. Brisker’s interception at the 2 stopped the Badgers’ potential go-ahead drive with 2:16 to play, and Brown’s pick at the 8 ended the game.
Penn State set a template for future games with explosive plays and turnover-free football. The Sean Clifford-led revamped offense did not commit a single turnover while the defense grabbed three takeaways. And Clifford completed five passes of more than 20 yards. Jahan Dotson caught a 49-yard touchdown throw, and his 42-yard reception set up Noah Cain’s tiebreaking TD run early in the fourth.
Clifford said turnovers were “personally one of the things I focused on a lot in the offseason, so to have zero turnovers as an offense and zero interceptions for myself, I’m really proud of that number.
“There’s a lot of different areas we can improve on, this is just the beginning. We’re really excited about the future.”
Ball State, the defending Mid-American Conference champion and the favorite to win it again, brings an experienced team to Happy Valley for next Saturday’s home opener at Beaver Stadium. As he likes to say after games, Franklin wants his team to “clean up” some areas.
In separate answers, he said the Lions “could probably have hit a few more” explosive plays, that “we were third-and-long way too much,” and that the defense dropped two interceptions.
A lot of football lies ahead, but it’s a big first step for Penn State.