From the Penn State perspective, if there was a theme to be derived from the Nittany Lions' 16-3 loss to Wisconsin Saturday evening in Madison, it would be something to the tune of "what else can go wrong?"
That seemed to be the mantra from the very first play of the game. Senior quarterback Zack Mills completed a 49-yard pass to junior Michael Robinson but was drilled by Erasmus James immediately following the delivery. On the next pass, Mills threw an interception to Wisconsin junior cornerback Brett Bell and was again hit hard right after delivering the ball, this time by linebacker Reggie Cribbs.
Mills was immediately taken out of the game and it was later announced that he had separated his right shoulder.
Quarterback No. 2, Robinson, put up mediocre numbers against a stingy and speedy Wisconsin defense, completing 1 of 3 passes for six yards and carrying the ball five times for a net loss of three yards. He was also sacked twice, the second of which took him out of the game with a concussion.
After Wisconsin scored its first and only touchdown of the game, Penn State took the ball at its 18-yard-line. On the drive's first play, James blew around left end and drilled Robinson, the crown of his helmet hitting Robinson just below the chin. Robinson whipped back and was hit almost as hard from the backside as well, with defensive tackle Jason Jefferson colliding with the back of Robinson's helmet. Robinson laid still on the turf, conscious, but not noticeably moving. Paramedics brought out a medical board and an ambulance drove onto the field, then took Robinson to University Hospital. According to Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, there was "some slight paralysis" but Robinson was moving his extremities on both sides by the time the game was finished.
"Any time they take that board out, that bothers you as a coach. Any time you see that, you don't know, you can't see from the field, you don't know if he's moving anything," Bradley said. "It's not a nice coaching (experience). You get a sickness in your stomach, especially someone, any of your players and Michael Robinson is a great competitor and a great warrior and just seeing him go on the ground is a tough thing."
Enter Chris Ganter. Prior to 2004, the fourth-year junior was used only as a field goal and point-after-touchdown holder. He received garbage time in Penn State's 48-10 trouncing of Akron, where he was 2-of-2 for 20 yards, his only career completions. Against Wisconsin, Ganter was 6 of 23 for 32 yards but also lost 14 yards on three ‘rushing attempts', which included two sacks.
"Chris Ganter stepped up. Chris Ganter did a great job," junior center E.Z. Smith said. "We couldn't ask anything more from Chris."
Ganter led an offense that simply could not sustain a drive, converting only 1 of 13 third downs. The Nittany Lions' only score came on a field goal from senior placekicker Robbie Gould, who knocked in a 23-yard attempt at the tail end of 74-yard scoring drive late in the third quarter.
"I thought [Wisconsin] did a good job defensively and I think we kind of shot ourselves in the foot, some on offense," said sophomore Tony Hunt, who had a career-high 16 carries for 72 yards. "We really couldn't keep a drive going or get a drive started but we'll be okay."
Junior fullback Matt Bernstein did not make life any easier for Penn State's defense. The Nittany Lions had an answer for tailbacks sophomore Booker Stanley, who injured his foot, and freshman Jamil Walker, who injured his shoulder, but not for Bernstein. The Nittany Lions may have held Wisconsin to only 13 rushing yards in the first half, but when the Badgers converted Bernstein to tailback, he plowed through Penn State's defense, bringing players with him at times and hurdling over them at others.
"He's a big load, he's a tough guy," said sophomore inside linebacker Tim Shaw, who tackled or aided in tackling Bernstein three times. "We just didn't stop him when we needed to and we let him run the ball down right into us for awhile. A few missed assignments, a few missed tackles and that's just a bad combination."
But one of the night's worst moments did not come until the end of the game. Penn State head coach Joe Paterno learned as he exited the field that his son-in-law, Chris Hort, had been in a serious accident while riding his bicycle near Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon. He was "life-flighted" to Altoona General Hospital and is intensive care with a head injury. Paterno left immediately after the game to attend to his family and did not speak with the media.
"We said a team prayer for [Paterno's] son-in-law and for Michael Robinson," Smith said on the team's post-game talk.
"For me personally, I kind of felt like, ‘What else could go wrong?' It was kind of a rough going," Hunt said. "We've just got to try to fight through whatever is thrown at us."
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