MADISON (WFRV) – Time and time again, Wisconsin knocked on the door – but in most instances, the Badgers were turned away by their own hand.
Wisconsin turned the ball over three times in Penn State territory, the Nittany Lions connected on a handful of deep pass plays, and the Badgers opened the 2021 season 0-1 with a 16-10 home loss.
For the first time since 1981, the 12th-ranked Badgers hosted a ranked Big Ten opponent to start the season, and the matchup with No. 19 Penn State turned immediately into a slobbernocker, resulting in a scoreless first half.
In the end, though, it was the road team making just enough plays to earn the victory before 76,832 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin’s issues came to a head on two late fourth quarter drives.
Trailing 16-10, quarterback Graham Mertz led the Badgers down the field, aided by a replay-overturned targeting penalty on Penn State’s leading tackler, Ellis Brooks. Brooks was ejected after leading with his helmet to jar Mertz near the sideline.
Mertz threw a strike to Danny Davis to bring the Badgers inside the Penn State one-yard line, but on the ensuing snap, the sophomore quarterback fumbled his second exchange of the day. Isaac Guerendo recovered the loose ball to keep the Badgers alive, but on fourth down, Mertz’s throw toward the goal line was picked off by Jaquan Brisker and returned to the 43-yard line.
The Badgers burned their final two timeouts on Penn State’s ensuing possession, forcing a punt and getting the ball back with 1:11 to play at their own 18.
Mertz was dialed in to start the drive, hitting Davis on a pair of quick outs to get two first downs. A defensive hands to the face penalty put Wisconsin into Penn State territory as the clock ticked under a minute.
But with four plays to score from the PSU 25, Mertz threw two incompletions, took an intentional grounding sack, and committed the game-sealing turnover with an interception as time expired.
The loss marked Wisconsin’s first home defeat in a season opener in 15 games since 2000.
The first half resembled what some might call “old fashioned Big Ten football,” with the Badgers holding Penn State to just one first down over the first 30 minutes.
The scoreless result at halftime was the first 0-0 tie between AP ranked teams at intermission since 2016, and the first scoreless first half of a Big Ten game since 2014.
After the Badgers went three-and-out to begin the second half, Penn State responded by nearly tripling up its first half yardage total with an 86-yard scoring drive, finishing with a 49-yard touchdown connection between Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson.
The Badgers offense would answer on the next drive. Mertz strung together completion after completion, hitting Chimere Dike for a first down before a splash play to Davis for 23 yards. Jake Ferguson’s acrobatic fingertip catch set up a first and goal, and Clemson transfer running back Chez Mellusi punched in his first Badger touchdown to tie it at 7.
The Badgers would grab a 10-7 lead on a 45-yard field goal from Collin Larsh, but Penn State punched back with long pass plays, putting the Nittany Lions in a position to tie it at 10.
After Wisconsin went three-and-out, Penn State converted the go-ahead scoring drive, ending with a two-yard touchdown run by Noah Cain.
The Badgers had their final two drives to take the lead, but came up short with the home loss.
Wisconsin returns to action at home next week against Eastern Michigan.