Game Grades: Big Ten Championship Game
The Penn State Nittany Lions yet again came from behind in the second half to win a thriller of a Big Ten championship, 38-31. The win brought many new records, including setting the record for biggest comeback in the Big Ten title game after the Wisconsin Badgers led 28-7 in the first half. Penn State started the comeback earlier than expected, bringing the game back within two scores when Trace McSorley completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall. In the second half, Penn State continued their incredible second half streak by outscoring Wisconsin 24-3 to win the game by seven points.
Now Penn State will be heading to the Rose Bowl to take on USC of the Pac-12 as the Nittany Lions found themselves just out of the College Football Playoff, checking in at No. 5 in the final committee rankings.
Here are the position grades for the Big Ten championship game:
Trace McSorley makes this grade incredibly easy to give with his performance. What other grade are you supposed to give the MVP of the game, especially when he had a record-setting game? McSorley’s stat line of 22 completions on 31 attempts for 384 yards and four touchdown passes set the records for passing yards and touchdown passes in the Big Ten Championship Game. He also broke the school’s single-season records for passing yards (surpassing Matt McGloin’s 3,271-yard 2012 season) and passing touchdowns (again, surpassing Matt McGloin’s 2012 season). He also played incredibly where it doesn’t show on the stat sheet. McSorley did a terrific job holding his own against the NCAA’s third best defense, refusing to be beaten by the constant pressure put on by the Badgers. McSorley kept his head in the pocket and made all the right decisions to give his team the chance to win, completing multiple long passes for touchdowns and huge gains. Penn State’s quarterback has proven once again, and on an even bigger stage, that he can lead his team through anything.
Running Backs: B+
Star running back Saquon Barkley didn’t have as flashy a game as most expect of him by now, but that certainly doesn’t mean he didn’t contribute to Penn State’s big win. On 19 carries, Barkley ran for 83 yards and a touchdown. His rushing touchdown came on a one yard power charge into the end zone to tie up the game at 28. Barkley also caught two passes including the touchdown that gave the Nittany Lions the lead a minute into the fourth quarter. There were fears that Barkley would be hobbled by the injury he sustained against Michigan State, or even the one that caused him to limp off the field at the beginning of the championship game, but the sophomore phenom toughed it out and did all he could to bring the trophy back to State College.
Wide Receivers: A
McSorley couldn’t have had his MVP award winning game if it weren’t for the incredible performances by his receivers. Saeed Blacknall had a career performance in the game, catching six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Not only are all three of those stats his career highs, but his receiving yards total broke the championship game record as well. Both of Blacknall’s touchdowns came on long bombs where he lost his defender, giving him a clear path to the end zone. Both his touchdowns also came at the perfect time to kick start the spirits of the Penn State team and propel them on their legendary comeback. DaeSean Hamilton also put up an impressive score line, making eight catches for 118 yards, a couple of which he made while he had defenders all over him.
Tight Ends: A-
Mike Gesicki, though not nearly targeted as many times as his wide receiver teammates, made two very important catches. His first catch put Penn State on the board when he caught a 33-yard pass from McSorley in the end zone. He also caught a very difficult first down during the game. After the first quarter, Gesicki did a lot to help bolster the offensive line against the blitz-heavy Badger defense. He also helped out with the passing game by taking up coverage, allowing his teammates to get more open on occasion.
Offensive Line: B+
Just like the rest of the team in the beginning of the game, the offensive line struggled. The first half found McSorley running for his life, being hurried multiple times and even fumbling the ball once while being sacked. Veteran lineman Brian Gaia also gave the Badgers a touchdown by snapping the ball over McSorley’s head. Near the end of the first half, however, the offensive line did a great job buckling down and giving their quarterback more time against such an impressive defensive line. Looking forward, Penn State is going to want to work on opening holes for Barkley and their other running backs, but they certainly have improved over the course of the year.
After the poor first quarter of play, the Nittany Lion defense brought their play back to their expected form. To start the second half Penn State forced Wisconsin’s kicker, Andrew Endicott, to attempt a season long 48-yard field goal, which he missed. Penn State’s defense kept the pressure on throughout the second half as well, only allowing one field goal, and giving their offense the time to complete the comeback. With just over a minute left in the fourth quarter, and Penn State up by seven, their defense forced Wisconsin to go for it on fourth and one. The Badgers handed it off to their running back, Corey Clement, who tried to run to the outside before being stuffed by Grant Haley and Marcus Allen just before the first down marker. Stopping Wisconsin there sealed the game for the Nittany Lions, the second time Haley and Allen had won the game for their team this season. Allen was the player who blocked the Ohio State field goal, and Haley ran it back for the touchdown in the signature game of the regular season.
Special Teams: A+
Games are frequently won or lost by special teams, and the Nittany Lions’ special teams didn’t miss a beat throughout the game. Starting out the game, Penn State’s punter, Blake Gillikin, did very well to push the Badger offense into poor field position, averaging almost 50 yards over his first two punts. Kicker Tyler Davis also was perfect during the game, converting all five of his extra points and putting his one field goal attempt through the uprights. His field goal at the end of the game would have forced Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst to decide between going to overtime or risk going for two if they had scored in the final minute of the game.
Since the beginning of the year, when he was sitting on a very hot seat, Penn State head coach James Franklin has done all he could to get this team to its potential. There is very little as of now that anyone could say he hasn’t been able to do for this team. Franklin did a great job, and has done a great job all year, calming his young team down during halftime and raring them up to put up the numbers they have all year in the second half. The biggest decision during the championship game that could have been questioned would be going for it on fourth down with eight minutes left in the first half. Other than that Coach Franklin and the rest of the coaching staff have done an incredible job of playing to their team’s strengths so far this season and the newly engraved Big Ten championship trophy is what they have to show for it.
Tommy Butler is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.