Wisconsin (4-0) made a strong defensive statement on its way to a 16-3 victory over Penn State (2-2) at Camp Randall Saturday evening. In the Big Ten opener for each school, the Badgers took command of the field position game and limited the Nittany Lions to just 157 yards of total offense on the day.
Nittany Lion quarterbacks Zach Mills and Michael Robinson both left the game with injuries in the first quarter, forcing third-string junior Chris Ganter into action, where he faced near-constant pressure from the Badgers’ front seven. Ganter finished the day 6-of-23 for just 32 yards and an interception.
Mills completed a 49-yard pass to Robinson on the game’s first play, but his second throw was a made under duress and landed in the hands of Badger cornerback Brett Bell. Mills was hit just after releasing each pass and left the game with a separated shoulder.
Robinson, who split duty with Mills at quarterback last season but had played primarily wide receiver this year, replaced Mills and lasted just three series. Late in the first quarter he was sandwiched in a hit between UW defensive linemen Erasmus James and Jason Jefferson. Robinson was diagnosed with a concussion and was removed from the field on a stretcher.
“We thought (we) had a pretty good game plan, and obviously when you lose your two offensive weapons, that causes a lot of problems from what you have left and what you can do,” Tom Bradley, Penn State’s defensive coordinator said on behalf of head coach Joe Paterno, who could not speak after the game due to a family emergency.
The Badgers had their own offensive problems, as tailbacks Booker Stanley and Jamil Walker were both limited due to injury. Despite putting 13 points on the board in the first half, starting tailback Booker Stanley was held to just 9 yards on 10 carries and a fumble while battling turf-toe. He did not return to the field after halftime. Walker took just three carries the entire game for 13 yards while aggravating a nagging shoulder injury.
UW quarterback John Stocco was an erratic 12-of-29 for 150 yards and two interceptions on the day, but turned in the Badgers’ lone touchdown on a five-yard bootleg with just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter. Stocco reaped the benefits of field position in first half, recording five of his completions in the second quarter to set up field goals of 39 and 38 yards for kicker Mike Allen.
Allen, who had received criticism throughout the week after a shaky performance in Arizona, put his past behind him to help the Badgers to a 13-0 halftime advantage.
“It feels good,” Allen said. “It’s real good. It just felt good to finally make some and actually get a good opportunity.”
With a struggling offense and slim on options, Alvarez and offensive coordinator Brian White turned to fullback Matt Bernstein in the second half. Bernstein moved into the starting tailback spot on the Badgers’ first possession and compiled an astonishing 123 yards for the game on 27 carries.
“He’s not the fastest guy in the world, but he plays fast and he’s a physical runner,” White said of Bernstein. “I just couldn’t have been prouder of the way he played. He was our difference maker on offense and really got the crowd into the game. He was fun to watch.”
“My whole team was helping me out,” Bernstein said of his second half performance. “The way the line was pushing people around, I can’t thank them enough. And the tight ends were pushing people and the wide receivers were blocking people. Greg (Root) came in there as my fullback, and, you know, those holes were so open. It could’ve been anyone running back there because those holes were just so wide open.”
Bernstein’s sound rushing enabled UW to wind down the clock in the second half while the defense was able to protect the lead.
Bernstein carried the ball 11 times on the Badgers’ opening possession of the third quarter, notching 62 yards to take the Badgers down to the Penn State seven-yard line. The drive set up Allen’s third field goal of the game, a 26-yarder, which gave the Badgers a commanding 16-0 lead.
Penn State mounted it’s lone scoring drive of the game in the third quarter. Tailback Tony Hunt, who was limited to just 72 yards on 16 carries, escaped on a 24-yard sprint down to the UW 24. Jim Leonhard, who recorded his first interception of the season in the first half, broke up a touchdown pass in the end zone on the ensuing play and helped halt Hunt’s next two rushes. Robbie Gould’s 23-yard field goal was all Penn State could muster under the intense pressure of the Badger defense.
On the day, the Badgers forced a fumble, recorded two interceptions, four sacks and eight tackles for loss. Penn State converted just 1-of-13 third down plays and never found a rhythm in the face of what has become a very formidable Wisconsin defense that has yet to give up more than seven points to an opponent.
“Our guys don’t want to give up a touchdown,” Alvarez said. “They really battled. I thought they really fought hard to keep them out of the end zone and that’s huge. You always talk of a defense that wants to give up threes. You don’t want to up sevens. Those guys battled.”