STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Jonathan Taylor’s 71-yard touchdown run on the University of Wisconsin’s first drive at Beaver Stadium on Saturday did nothing more than present false hope for a team desperate to redefine a season that continues slipping further and further from preseason expectations.
The Badgers’ lead lasted less than four minutes, and they never gained it back in a 22-10 loss to No. 21 Penn State, the third defeat in five weeks and fourth overall for a team pegged to make a run at the College Football Playoff in August.
“I think everybody’s just kind of frustrated right now,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. “I think all of us knew our potential. I think we all still believe in that potential. We’ve yet to reach it, though.”
UW’s loss allowed Northwestern to win the Big Ten West with its win over Iowa later in the day, ending the Badgers’ run of two straight division titles.
Saturday marked the first time UW’s lost three Big Ten games since 2012 and the first time since 2001 that the Badgers (6-4, 4-3) dropped three conference games by more than a touchdown.
They’ve yet to win a road game since traveling to Iowa on Sept. 22, a trend that UW, as nine-point underdogs, appeared capable of breaking when Taylor ripped off his long run on the Badgers’ third play from scrimmage.
“Any time you get a big play like that early in the game, it definitely sparks your team,” Taylor said. “The only thing that you can do after that is continue to roll and maintain and keep that same energy and momentum. … When you don’t, you have to make sure you rally the guys and understand that someone has to make a play. Someone has to make a play to get the spark, get the energy back.”
That play never came for the Badgers, whose offense gained just 190 yards the rest of the way with backup quarterback Jack Coan under center for his second career start.
Coan, filling in for starter Alex Hornibrook (concussion), completed 9-of-20 passes for 60 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The sophomore also fumbled a snap on third-and-1 to end UW’s second possession, lost another fumble in the fourth quarter and remained mostly relegated to handing the ball off until the Badgers fell further behind in the second half.
Penn State (7-4, 4-3) responded from Taylor’s long run with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 14-yard scoring toss from quarterback Trace McSorley to wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins. McSorley also hit tight end Pat Freiermuth on a similar route for a 16-yard gain the play before Thompkins’ touchdown.
“Good concept versus the coverage we were running,” Dixon said. “That’s all.”
Coan’s fumbled snap led to a 49-yard field goal for the Nittany Lions, and they made it 16 unanswered points when running back Miles Sanders jumped over the line for a 1-yard touchdown with 8:09 left in the second quarter.
Sanders finished with 159 yards on 23 carries, breaking a number of key tackles throughout the day. He slipped away from UW safety Scott Nelson to gain 23 yards on third-and-7 three plays before his touchdown and converted a fourth-and-1 on the Nittany Lions’ final scoring drive in the fourth quarter.
“Everyone sees (Sanders’) athletic ability,” said McSorley, who finished 19-of-25 passing for 160 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. “The more comfortable he gets, the more he starts making plays, jumping over people and all that kind of stuff.”
An interception from Coan in the first half’s final seconds nearly allowed Penn State to add more points, but Isaiahh Loudermilk blocked a 44-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
Of Taylor’s 185 yards, 143 came in the first half on 12 carries. UW gained just one yard on its other 11 plays through two quarters, as Coan only attempted four passes before the break, completing two for 10 yards.
Taiwan Deal’s 37-yard run on the third play of the second half set up Rafael Gaglianone for a 28-yard field goal, cutting Penn State’s advantage to 16-10. Even in a one-score game, however, the deficit felt much larger.
Kicker Jake Pinegar nailed two more field goals — from 42 and 23 yards — over the Nittany Lions’ next three drives, extending the lead to 22-10 and putting the game away.
UW had a couple more chances in Penn State territory, the second created on a fumble recovery by Zack Baun, but the Badgers were stopped on fourth down twice.
“It’s hard to swallow,” Baun said. “When you lose, it just hurts. It’s supposed to sting. I hope it stings for everyone else.”