MADISON, Wis. – Penn State’s defense continually stood tall and Wisconsin kept stubbing its toe whenever the Badgers approached the end zone.
Those contrasting approaches made the difference Saturday when the 19th-ranked Nittany Lions outlasted No. 12 Wisconsin 16-10 to end the Badgers’ 25-game winning streak in home openers.
Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown intercepted Graham Mertz's passes deep in Penn State territory in the final 2 1/2 minutes. Wisconsin had four scoreless trips inside Penn State’s 25, including three inside the 10.
“Our kids willed it to happen today,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Penn State won despite getting just one first down before halftime and allowing Wisconsin to control possession for over 42 minutes. The victory assured Penn State would have a better start this year after losing its first five games in the pandemic-delayed 2020 season.
Brisker picked off a fourth-and-goal pass at Penn State's 2 and returned it 41 yards with 2:15 left to preserve a 16-10 lead. Brown sealed the victory with an interception on the game's final play.
“I’m obviously not proud of how it ended,” said Mertz, who went 22 of 37 for 185 yards. “There are definitely a lot if things that fell on my plate that I need to clean up. I will.”
Penn State withstood a quality performance from Chez Mellusi, who rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries in his Wisconsin debut. Mellusi had just 27 carries all season last year while playing for Clemson.
The Nittany Lions also disappointed most of the 76,832 fans who poured into Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since November 2019. The Badgers had no fans at home games last year.
Noah Cain broke a 10-all tie and put Penn State ahead for good with a 2-yard touchdown run with 9:17 remaining, though Jonathan Stout’s extra-point attempt bounced off the left upright. Stout also missed a 23-yard field goal.
That set up the frantic final minutes.
Wisconsin had first-and-goal at the 1 on a drive that included a targeting penalty on Ellis Brooks that knocked Penn State’s top tackler out of the game.
Then things went awry.
Mertz lost the ball on first down, though Wisconsin’s Isaac Guerendo recovered the fumble at the 4. Guerendo lost a yard on second down, then Joey Porter Jr. broke up a pass.
On fourth-and-goal, Mertz lobbed a pass across the middle for tight end Jake Ferguson, but Brisker picked it off.
“I knew they love No. 84 (Ferguson), especially when they’re in the red zone,” said Brisker, who left the game due to cramps on multiple occasions but kept coming back. “They kept looking at him even if they missed him or he came up short. I figured I’d sit there and let the quarterback throw the ball.”
Wisconsin got the ball back on its own 18 with 1:11 left and reached Penn State's 25 with 26 seconds remaining. But after an intentional grounding call pushed Wisconsin back to the 32, Brown picked off a pass to end the game.
“Our defense played extremely well, gutsy,” Franklin said.
Those weren't the only opportunities Wisconsin wasted.
Wisconsin had first-and-goal at the 2 in the second quarter but ended up with nothing after Arnold Ebiketie blocked Collin Larsh's 25-yard field-goal attempt. On Wisconsin's next series, the Badgers faced third-and-6 from the Nittany Lions’ 8 when a botched handoff from Mertz to Mellusi resulted in a fumble that Nick Tarburton recovered.
“I think today there were points where we were playing against two teams - ourselves and against them,” Guerendo said.
BADGERS' CHENAL OUT
Wisconsin played without one of its usual starting inside linebackers. Leo Chenal, whose 46 tackles ranked second on the team last season, announced on Instagram he would miss the first two games after testing positive for COVID-19.
Mike Maskalunas, a sixth-year senior, made his first career start in Chenal's place.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions gained just 43 yards in the first half but won by opening up their passing attack in the second half and coming up huge on defense. Sean Clifford went 18 of 33 for 247 yards, including 206 in the second half. Jahan Dotson had a 49-yard touchdown catch and set up Penn State's other touchdown with a 42-yard reception.
Wisconsin: The Badgers' defense once again looks outstanding. It won't matter unless the offense starts playing better. ... Mellusi gave Wisconsin's ground attack a new look. Jalen Berger, the Badgers' leading rusher last year, didn't play at all.
Wisconsin figures to fall out of the top 15. Penn State could move up to the top 15.
Penn State hosts Ball State next Saturday.
Wisconsin hosts Eastern Michigan next Saturday.
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