INDIANAPOLIS - After Penn State fell behind Wisconsin by 21 points in the second quarter and went into halftime of the Big Ten championship game trailing 28-14, the thought of the thousands of its white-clad fans in Lucas Oil Stadium had to be whether the Nittany Lions still had that second-half magic.
Trace McSorley, the game MVP who threw four touchdown passes, led the Lions to points on each of their first four possessions of the second half in a record-breaking performance, carrying Penn State to the Big Ten championship with a 38-31 victory over the Badgers on Saturday night.
The second-half rally for Penn State was a reflection of the entire season, especially during its winning streak. The Nittany Lions came into the game outscoring opponents by 280-105 after halftime; they did not allow the Badgers (10-3) a touchdown in the second half Saturday night while outscoring them, 24-3.
"I don't like the fact that we don't get started as quickly as I think we can," head coach James Franklin said, "but I do like the fact that I'm able to come in at halftime and say to our guys that we're a second-half team. I think the last eight games of the year, we averaged 27 points in the second half and only gave up six. So after telling the guys that and talking to them in the locker room, I felt like we left the locker room really confident."
McSorley, who completed 22 of 31 passes for a championship-game record 384 yards, set the tone right away after halftime, throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall on his team's initial play in the third quarter. In all, he hit his first seven passes of the second half, one of them an 18-yard scoring toss to Saquon Barkley early in the fourth quarter that gave Penn State the lead for good at 35-31.
Tyler Davis kicked a 24-yard field goal with 5 minutes, 14 seconds to play to increase the Lions' lead to seven, and then the Nittany Lions came up with a defensive stand to clinch the win. Cornerback Grant Haley and safety Marcus Allen stopped Corey Clement short of the sticks on fourth and 1 from the Penn State 24 with 1:01 to play.
"They ran the ball pretty well tonight," Haley said. "But it was an opportunity where they were going to run a counter. They ran it earlier in the game, and they kind of split us for a touchdown. I saw them set the edge, so I just got triggered really well. Marcus wrapped him up and finished off the play, just a great team effort there."
The Badgers scored on their first two possessions to lead 14-0, with their second touchdown coming on a 67-yard run by Clement, the former Glassboro High School star who carried 21 times for 164 yards.
Penn State scored its first touchdown on a 33-yard pass from McSorley to 6-foot-6 tight end Mike Gesicki, who outleaped 6-foot cornerback Lubern Figaro in the end zone. But Wisconsin got the next two TDs, including a 12-yard return of a fumble by linebacker Ryan Connelly after McSorley was unable to fall on a bad snap, and led, 28-7, with 5:15 left until halftime.
The Lions received some life, however, in the closing stages of the second quarter on McSorley's 40-yard TD pass to Blacknall, and that score gave them momentum entering the locker room.
"The coaches taught us to never put our head down, never give up, trust in what we're doing," Gesicki said. "I don't know if it's great for us, but we obviously believe we're a second-half team, so to get that touchdown before halftime . . . when we went in at halftime, it was like we were winning the game.
"We knew we'd come out in the second half and make some adjustments and make a lot of plays the way we did in the second half. There were no heads down. There was no doubt."
Barkley, who landed hard on his left leg on his first carry of the night and left the game for a short time, rushed for 83 yards on 19 carries and scored on a 1-yard run.
The Nittany Lions will get their official bowl assignment on Sunday. Coming into Saturday night's game, Franklin had declined to discuss the chances of making the College Football Playoff. He sounded pretty much the same after the game, except for acknowledging for the first time that his team will be part of the conversation among selection committee members.
"I think we can make a great case for ourselves," he said. "We're appreciative and blessed that we're going to be a part of that conversation.
"But at the end of the day, whatever the powers that be tell us that our future is, we're going to be really appreciative, and we're going to be really happy. I just talked about that with the guys in the locker room, and everybody kind of reacted the same way. Whatever opportunity we get moving forward, we'll be very, very appreciative of."