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Penn State’s offense comes alive in the second half but defense saves a 16-10 victory over Wisconsin

After a poor first half offensively, the Nittany Lions showed life in the second half. But it was their defense that stopped the relentless Badgers time after time, including two interceptions late.

Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson catches a pass in front of Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. during the first half  in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson catches a pass in front of Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. during the first half in Madison, Wis.Read moreMorry Gash / AP

MADISON, Wis. — No. 19 Penn State opened its 2021 season Saturday with a 16-10 victory over No. 12 Wisconsin before a crowd of 76,832 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Play of the game

Wisconsin was slowly progressing downfield for the tying touchdown and the possible winning extra point in the closing moments, having a first and goal at the 1, but after quarterback Graham Mertz inexplicably fumbled the ball back to the seven, Penn State had some life.

And after a pass breakup by Joey Porter Jr., on third down, safety Jaquan Brisker came up with the play of the game. As Mertz tried to loft a pass to tight end Jake Ferguson, Brisker leaped up and intercepted it at the 2 and returned it 41 yards with 2 minutes, 16 seconds remaining.

Penn State’s defense had some work to do as the Badgers regained possession after a punt at their own 18 with 1:11 to play. Mertz completed four straight passes and a personal foul penalty against the Nittany Lions helped Wisconsin get to the Penn State 25.

But a crucial intentional grounding penalty against Mertz moved the Badgers back, and junior safety Ji’Ayir Brown intercepted Mertz at the 8-yard line on the last play of the game.

Wisconsin ran 95 offensive plays in the game to 51 for the Nittany Lions, whose time of possession was 17:35 as compared to the Badgers’ 42:24. But in the all-important turnover category, Penn State was plus-3 – no turnovers, three takeaways – one fumble recovery, two interceptions.

Unwrapping the offense

After weeks of anticipation about a revamped offense introduced by new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, Penn State played brutally bad football on that side of the ball in the first half – one first down, 43 total yards, zero points.

But the offense came out at warp speed in the third quarter with a much faster pace, so fast, in fact, that the referee whistled play dead after one snap claiming the officials were not in position. Sean Clifford completed four straight passes, the last a 49-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Jahan Dotson, and after going 30 minutes without a point, they scored in 55 seconds.

Chunk plays keyed the offense in the half. On their next possession, the Lions used a 52-yard pass from Clifford to KeAndre Lambert-Smith to set themselves up for another score, but Jordan Stout shanked a 23-yard field goal attempt wide right.

A 34-yard run by Noah Cain, by far the Lions’ best rush gain of the day, led to Stout’s 24-yard field goal. And on Penn State’s next possession, Clifford’s 42-yard completion to Jahan Dotson was followed three plays later by Cain’s 2-yard scoring run that gave the Lions a 16-10 lead with 9:17 to play.

But Stout saw his extra-point try clang off the left upright, giving the Badgers new life.

Stout’s bombs

Stout, a redshirt senior, did triple duty Saturday – punts, field goals and kickoffs – but his punting by far was the most obvious. He punted six times for a 56.2-yard average, five of them for more than 50 yards, including a 76-yard missile.

Stout usually shares the kicking duties with senior Jake Pinegar, who comes on for extra points and short field goals, but he did all the work Saturday. After missing a chip shot in the third quarter, he drilled a 24-yard field goal in the fourth that tied the game at 10.

But Stout missed another easy kick, the extra point after the Lions took the lead early in the fourth quarter that clanged off the left upright, and it was nervous time for all of Nittany Nation after that.

Worst half (ever?)

We’ve got to mention how bad the Penn State offense was in the first half – 22 plays, 8:58 time of possession, five carries and five yards for its running backs.

Clifford rarely had enough time in the pocket playing behind an offensive line that returned three highly regarded starters. The ground game went nowhere. The longest play was a 24-yard completion from Clifford to Parker Washington for their only trek into Wisconsin territory, but the Lions couldn’t convert a fourth-and-1 from the Badgers 34 and turned the ball over on downs.

Fortunately, the defense and special teams showed up to stop both of Wisconsin’s trips into the red zone. Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie blocked a 25-yard field goal attempt by Collin Larsh, and defensive end Nick Tarburton claimed a missed handoff that fell to the turf and into his arms at the Penn State 13.

Defense hangs in

The Nittany Lions had some great performances on defense. Ebiketie, a transfer from Temple who impressed his new teammates throughout the spring and training camp, had five tackles, one tackle for loss and a hurry, and forced an apparent strip-sack that was called an incomplete pass on review.

Middle linebacker Ellis Brooks led the team with 11 tackles but was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting.

Jesse Luketa, playing defensive end instead of his customary linebacker, had four tackles including some key stops.

The Badgers rushed for 180 yards but gained just 3.1 yards per rush.