Analysis: Penn State shows grit in win, sets itself up as Ohio State's biggest threat in Big Ten East

·3 min read

Sometimes an anticipated game in Week 1 doesn't live up to its billing. The clash between No. 15 Wisconsin and No. 20 Penn State, however, was just as advertised Saturday.

In a matchup that was expected to sort out which Big Ten team would establish itself as the main contender to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions gutted out an impressive 16-10 victory on the road that started to erase the memories of last year’s forgettable 4-5 season.

The showdown was your typical opener as both teams struggled with turnovers, penalties, missed field goals and the usual uneven play that you often see because college football lacks a preseason.

In the end, it was really the heart of Penn State that carried the team through. Wisconsin dominated the first half and the Nittany Lions hung on and kept the game scoreless, helped by a stop inside from its 1-yard line and an ensuing missed field goal by the Badgers.

Penn State safety Ji'Ayir Brown (16) is surrounded by teammates following the win against Wisconsin.
Penn State safety Ji'Ayir Brown (16) is surrounded by teammates following the win against Wisconsin.

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The second half was a different story. Penn State's passing game behind Sean Clifford got going. Clifford, who was pulled as the team's starter when Penn State started 0-5 last year, bettered his 41 yards in the first half with an early 49-yard strike to Jahad Dotston for a touchdown to open the scoring.

The combination worked for 42 yards in the fourth quarter to set up the decisive touchdown. However, a missed extra point by Jordan Stout left the door open for Wisconsin to win the game with a touchdown. And the Badgers came close.

But the Nittany Lions defense that hung in all game as the offense was sputtering came up with two interceptions deep in its territory on Wisconsin's final two possessions to seal the victory.

The final interception by Ji'Ayir Brown was the 95th snap for the Penn State defense in a game where Wisconsin held the ball for 42:51 and ran the ball 58 times – seven more carries than the total offensive plays for the Nittany Lions.

Brown's play capped what could be the biggest win for any team on the opening weekend. Penn State won in one of college football's most difficult environments while not playing its best. More importantly, they showed character by fighting through adversity and that will be important with a trip to Ohio State coming at the end of October that could decide the Big Ten East.

Before then, there are issues to work out. The running game has to be more consistent, though not many defenses will be tougher than Wisconsin. Two easy misses by Stout also were alarming. And the passing game has to be more consistent. But every team has things to iron out after the opener. It's much easier after a win like this.

While the loss was a step back for Wisconsin, there were plenty of positives. The Badgers were the better team on both lines of scrimmage. The secondary was solid except for a couple of plays. Not much changes their outlook as the best team in the West, which could mean that Ohio State showdown still happens – or possibly another shot at the Nittany Lions.

Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Penn State shows grit in victory, will be contender for Ohio State