Reeling after back-to-back losses took them out of the national championship picture a month ago, running back Montee Ball and No. 15 Wisconsin have rallied for a spot in the Big Ten title game and a shot at the Rose Bowl.
And as Ball makes a run at the NCAA's single-season touchdown record, the Badgers just might be grooming a late-blooming Heisman Trophy contender.
Ball scored four more touchdowns and Wisconsin routed No. 20 Penn State 45-7 on Saturday. With the win, Wisconsin will play Big Ten Legends division winner Michigan State in Indianapolis next Saturday.
“We had a group of men in our room that we knew would take one day at a time to get to where we wanted to be,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “They started on a process to get through the last four weeks. Bottom line: We won a trophy today to earn a way to Indianapolis and can't wait to get there.”
Wisconsin went into the season promoting quarterback Russell Wilson for the Heisman, but recently added a push for Ball. Ball has scored 34 touchdowns this season for the Badgers (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten), the second-most in a single season in NCAA history. Barry Sanders holds the record, scoring 39 for Oklahoma State in 11 games in the 1988 season.
The Nittany Lions (9-3, 6-2) came into the game hoping to salvage something from a season dwarfed by scandal. They took an early 7-0 lead but quickly unraveled, falling behind 28-7 by halftime.
Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley was frustrated by turnovers and poor tackling - but insists that his team deserves to go to a bowl game despite a scandal that has tainted the entire program.
“They didn't have anything to do with it,” Bradley said. “They weren't involved in any way. And I think they deserve an opportunity to play in a bowl.”
The Nittany Lions came into Saturday's game still reeling in the wake of child sex abuse charges against former Nittany Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky, which led to turmoil on campus and the end of coach Joe Paterno's reign at the school.
For now, Bradley is giving his players the week off.
“I think a week away from everybody won't hurt us,” Bradley said.
The Nittany Lions started strong, taking an 7-0 lead on a pair of big mistakes by the Badgers.
Wisconsin had Penn State stopped, but a Wisconsin player ran into Nittany Lions punter Anthony Fera to give up a first down on a penalty. Four plays later, Matt McGloin found Curtis Drake wide open _ no Badgers defensive back was within 10 yards _ near the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown.
The Badgers answered with a heavy dose of Ball on a 10-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Jared Abbrederis.
McGloin then threw an interception to Wisconsin safety Shelton Johnson, giving the ball back to the Badgers near midfield. Wilson marched Wisconsin into the red zone, Ball scored a 1-yard touchdown and Wisconsin took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Wilson then left Nittany Lions defenders grasping at air on a drive late in the second quarter. With the Badgers facing third-and-7, Wilson slipped away from pressure and ran for a first down. Later in the drive, Wilson broke a handful of tackles on a 19-yard scramble to give Wisconsin first-and-goal at the 5. Ball scored a 2-yard touchdown two plays later, and Wisconsin took a 21-7 lead.
Penn State then fumbled a kickoff and Wilson drove the Badgers again, finishing with a 4-yard touchdown to Nick Toon.
Toon was wearing jersey No. 87 in tribute to his father, former Badgers and New York Jets wide receiver Al Toon.
Penn State running back Silas Redd fumbled early in the third quarter and the Badgers recovered near midfield.
Wilson marched the Badgers into the red zone, Ball scored his third touchdown of the day from 9 yards out and Wisconsin led 35-7.
Ball added an 18-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
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