INDIANAPOLIS - Penn State coach James Franklin decided to have a little fun when someone asked him when he thought the Nittany Lions had a chance to play in the Big Ten championship game.
"Well, I had Wisconsin vs. Penn State on my grease board in August," he said with a straight face.
"No, I didn't."
The Nittany Lions qualified for Saturday night's title contest against Wisconsin by going unbeaten through October and November. Franklin said he never thought about eventually getting to Lucas Oil Stadium until a week ago, when the fans inside Beaver Stadium erupted into cheers in the first quarter of his team's game against Michigan State.
He said he was speaking to his quarterback, Trace McSorley, at the time the fans let everyone know that Ohio State had defeated Michigan in double overtime.
"Trace looked at me on the sideline and said, 'What's going on?'" Franklin recalled. "I said, 'I assume that Ohio State just won.' I never really kind of thought about it or looked at it until after that game was over. Michigan State is a tremendous opponent. We knew it was going to be a challenge.
"After that game ended, we knew we were going to have a chance to represent the East in the game . . . probably the first time it hit that we were going to be doing it."
Franklin then gestured to the Big Ten championship, which was sitting near him on the podium.
"To be honest with you, until today, seeing this trophy, which is really cool sitting here, it probably still hadn't kind of hit home yet," he said.
Senior Bart Houston started at quarterback for Wisconsin for the first time since Sept. 17 and played the entire first half in relief of redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook.
Hornibrook, a graduate of Malvern Prep, had started the previous nine games for the Badgers but suffered a head injury last week against Minnesota. Coach Paul Chryst said Saturday that Hornibrook would be available for the game against Penn State, but the quarterback remained sidelined in the first half.
Houston completed 6 of 10 passes for 66 yards in the first half. The Badgers ran the ball on 26 of their 36 offensive plays, and led the Nittany Lions, 28-14.
Houston started the first three games of the season but played in six of the next nine while Chryst went to a two-quarterback system. He had completed nearly 64 percent of his passes for 912 yards and five touchdowns while throwing three interceptions.
Saquon Barkley already had committed to Rutgers by the time James Franklin took over as Penn State coach in January 2014, and Franklin decided "he was a guy we couldn't let leave the state."
Franklin immediately worked on changing the mind of Barkley, who played his high school ball in the Lehigh Valley at Whitehall High School and has emerged as one of the nation's top running backs this season, rushing for 1,219 yards entering Saturday.
He had a link inside the program with a former teammate from his collegiate playing days at East Stroudsburg.
"My best wide receiver and deep threat, Dennis McWhite, was his position coach in high school, so that helped," Franklin said.
"Obviously once we were able to kind of get to know him, his guidance counselors, his high school coach, his parents, it just made sense. It made sense for him and his family to stay close to home. He had a chance to get a world-class education, play football, and stay close to home.