On paper, this was not supposed to be the result.
O'Brien, well aware of the odds, held little back in the final game of the season.
And that's what the guys who set the lines in Vegas do, remember -- they go with the paper. They base their predictions, the ones that are responsible for millions of dollars changing hands across this sports-crazed country each week, on the numbers. The hard, unbending, reliable numbers. And the numbers, on a long enough timeline, will very rarely steer you wrong.
But then you have days like Saturday, which remind us of something we somehow still need to be reminded of from time to time -- that the numbers aren't everything. They don't account for a 100-yard return of a missed field goal or a wide receiver inexplicably left all alone three yards from the goal line.
They don't account for emotion, and desire and -- for lack of a better word -- stones.
On the face of it, you could say that Penn State was able to upset Wisconsin -- yes, 24-point favorite Wisconsin, which had run through six of its previous seven Big Ten opponents like a Badger claw through hot butter and had nearly toppled Ohio State in the Horseshoe -- because the Nittany Lions made fewer mistakes than the Badgers (Bill O'Brien, in fact, uttered that very sentence Saturday night), and you would be right. Even with the nine penalties and the Sam Ficken Variety Hour, it was as clean a game as Penn State has played all season.
When you play aggressive, gutsy football for four quarters, though, you don't have time to worry about mistakes -- and you can force the other guy, the one that is much better on paper, to make more than his share. And that's precisely what O'Brien and his squad did to grab this game by the throat.
O'Brien's first Penn State team won eight of its final 10 games with big plays from its seniors, sharp offensive play calling and a stubborn defense. But it also won those games with some gutsy decisions from both the coach and the guys on the field. Penn State played with nothing to lose, and it rarely did.
It's not that the 2013 Nittany Lions didn't show the same kind of, um, stony approach at times this season, but it didn't quite have the same feel. O'Brien had to scale back his playbook a bit for his freshman quarterback. He couldn't take quite as many chances with his offense knowing that his defense probably wasn't going to bail it out.
Well, maybe it took a three-touchdown point spread to put it there, but the Matt McGloin-sized chip was back on the shoulders of the Nittany Lions on Saturday in Madison, and that included the shoulder of the head coach. Just four plays into the game, O'Brien and his freshman quarterback took a big bite into Wisconsin's defense, and it wasn't more than they could chew. Christian Hackenberg found Adam Breneman on a rollout and the big tight end showed the speed that had made him one of the nation's most desired recruits on his way to a 68-yard touchdown.
"I think it set the tone for the game, that we're here to play," Breneman said.
The Nittany Lions maintained that tone on the next possession, when O'Brien left the offense on the field after Bill Belton came up a yard short of the sticks at the Wisconsin 12-yard line. Penn State, which had somehow gone two full games without a fourth-down attempt, was going to go for it -- but Adam Gress, setting another kind of tone for the day, was flagged for a false start. It was a reminder of the way mistakes can hinder even the most gutsy of play calls, which was an all-too-familiar theme for the Nittany Lions this season.
The gutsiest call of the night -- of O'Brien's Penn State tenure, perhaps -- was still to come.
It was officially a 3rd-and-9 from the Penn State 18 with just under four minutes remaining. The Badgers had sliced a 31-14 lead to 31-24 and the shell-shocked Camp Randall fans had found their tongues again. If Wisconsin could force a punt and get the ball back with decent field position, it was anyone's game.
O'Brien faced a less than appealing choice: Throw for the first down and risk a sack or, just as bad, an incomplete pass that would stop the clock. Or run the ball and try to get nine yards against a Wisconsin defense that, to that point, hadn't allowed a run of longer than eight yards all day.
You could say he chose with his head, but it was a choice that had to come from his gut.
"It's a draw play," said right guard John Urschel, eyes wide, stressing each syllable as if to leave no misunderstanding about the risk of such a call. "They're playing the run."
But O'Brien's aim was true -- Zach Zwinak found a hole on the left side and raced 61 yards. It was not a definitive blow -- Ficken's pushed field goal assured that -- but it kept the game from turning back into Wisconsin's hands which, as it turned out, was all and exactly what Penn State needed.
"Great play-calling on Coach O'Brien's part," Urschel said, grinning broadly.
Urschel, who might understand numbers better than anyone in college football, can appreciate the long odds of getting the first down with such a call. He can also appreciate the effect that feeling disrespected can have on a team that has spent so much of the past two seasons proving doubters wrong.
"Twenty-four points, I think, is a little excessive," Urschel said.
No, the Nittany Lions were not supposed to win this game, or even make it much of a game. But they weren't supposed to do a lot of things that they did during Urschel's final two seasons. And it might have been that knowledge that helped them put some big stones -- provided by their coach -- into their sling and bring Goliath crashing to the ground.
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