Five years ago to the day, Penn State pulled off its biggest upset in more than three decades. One that sent a sometimes overlooked leader out on a high note, one that reminded college football what the Nittany Lions were capable of.
On Nov. 30, 2013, Penn State took out Wisconsin, 31-24, as a 24-point underdog in Madison. The Nittany Lions, then 6-5, were seeking their second straight winning season under head coach Bill O’Brien, in the midst of unprecedented NCAA sanctions. The No. 14 Badgers, meanwhile, were 9-2 and inching closer to a BCS bowl.
But a gap in talent or drive wasn’t apparent at Camp Randall Stadium. Penn State, led by Christian Hackenberg’s 339 passing yards and four touchdowns, pulled off the biggest Power 5 upset of the season and the program’s biggest since at least 1984, per Covers.com.
It was a career-defining day for the likes of Hackenberg, Adam Breneman and Geno Lewis. It also happened to be O’Brien’s last game at Penn State; 32 days after the Nittany Lions shocked the Badgers, he accepted the head coaching job with the Houston Texans.
Given all that went into the Nittany Lions’ often forgotten upset — and all that came after — we discussed the importance of Penn State’s stunner with the players who made it happen. Here is how they remember the Nittany Lions matching Wisconsin in Madison.
The week before
When the college football lines came out on Monday of game week, O’Brien and his team were stunned. Penn State was a 24-point ‘dog to Wisconsin, a team the Nittany Lions beat in Happy Valley just a year before. For reference, Penn State was a 24-point favorite against Appalachian State in the 2018 opener.
PK Sam Ficken: Not that a lot of guys in college pay attention to the gambling line, but to be 24-point underdogs to a Big Ten team that you beat the year before? It was surprising within the building. But I thought O’Brien kept us grounded.
QB Christian Hackenberg: Coach O’Brien started off every meeting with, ‘Are you kidding me? 24-point underdogs?’ That was his focal point with us. From a personality standpoint, that motivated him.
TE Adam Breneman: He drilled that into our heads all week. I remember the first meeting that kicked off the game week. It was a Monday, and the spread had just come out. He talked to us about how disrespectful that was, and how Vegas and college football think that we’re not very good. Like, 24 points worse than Wisconsin? That was pretty disrespectful.
WR Geno Lewis: It was typical O’Brien. He didn’t sugarcoat nothing. He told us, look, we’re going to have to go out there and make plays that we usually don’t make. We had to be as perfect as we could possibly be.
LB Brandon Bell: Although we might not have had anything to play for, so it seemed, that group of guys, it was a ton of pride. Which every team should have. But with the guys that stuck around and those senior leaders, there was no letdown. … And being underdogs added fuel to the fire. We wanted to upend their season.
Four plays into the game, Penn State found the end zone. One five-star freshman connected with another, as Hackenberg found Breneman for a 68-yard catch-and-run score. On a hookup that had never happened before.
QB Christian Hackenberg: One of the things that Coach O’Brien and I highlighted throughout that year was getting me on the edge. Run some sort of naked early on in the game to get some stuff going, get my legs going and it helped settle me in. But I had not thrown that backside crossing route to Breneman, like, I don’t think I threw it all year. Maybe one or twice in practice, in training camp. But I had never thrown that. Ever. Never a thought. Even in that week of prep, I would throw the comeback or check it down.
TE Adam Breneman: I don’t think he ever threw it to me in practice. I was on the backside of that play. So on the front side was Jesse James running in the flat, and we had a comeback on the outside. I’ll tell ya, 99 times out of 100, that play goes to Jesse or Geno on the front side. That ball is out before I even get across the field.
QB Christian Hackenberg: And for some reason, it just popped in front of my eyes.
TE Adam Breneman: They were in Cover 3, and the safety fell down at the snap. No one’s near me. You’ve got to give credit to Hack. He hadn’t drilled even looking at me all year. He saw it. I saw it. And it’s one of those plays that when I go back to Penn State, five years later, people still bring that play up to me. I still hear about it. I never thought that would be my last touchdown at Penn State, at the time. But it allows me to look back on my career and smile, thinking about that game and that play.
QB Christian Hackenberg: When Breneman broke the tackle and went 80 yards or whatever it was, which should have never happened (laughs), that’s when I had a feeling. It settled us all down. And personally, once that happened, I was thinking, ‘This could get fun quick.’ And it did.
The fun continues
After three quarters, the Nittany Lions led 24-14. Hackenberg was rolling, having found Lewis and Jesse James for short touchdowns. Ficken added a field goal at the end of the third, right before a party erupted in Penn State’s huddle.
As is tradition, before the fourth quarter started, Camp Randall Stadium played “Jump Around.” Typically, the crowd bounces in tune. But with Wisconsin trailing by two scores, the Badger faithful were less than enthusiastic at the time. So, the Nittany Lions, in a team huddle on the field, saw it as an opportunity.
PK Sam Ficken: Everyone makes a big deal about the whole ‘Jump Around’ thing in between the third and fourth quarter, and how that’s such a motivating factor for their team. Well, I explicitly remember it being a jump around more for us than them.
QB Christian Hackenberg: We were super confident. And I think it might have been Coach O’Brien. Either Coach O’Brien or Fitz, they were like, ‘Hey, they do this whole jump around thing. Screw that. Y’all jump around. Y’all are 24-point ‘dogs.’
TE Adam Breneman: We played that song all week in practice, just to get used to hearing it. It’s funny, though, because we looked around and the fan base was dead. No one is doing it in the stands. The fans didn’t want to be there at that point. They’re embarrassed that they’re losing to a sanctioned Penn State team. And we thought, if they’re not going to do it, we’re going to do it.
And the Nittany Lions closed it out. Early in the fourth, Hackenberg found Lewis on a 59-yard scoring strike. The Badgers mounted a late comeback, but Ryan Keiser’s interception — Penn State’s third of the day — sealed the historic upset. And in doing so, the Nittany Lions, unknowingly at the time, sent O’Brien to the NFL on a win.
QB Christian Hackenberg: For him, to have that on the way out, was a big boost. They were going to get a bid to a BCS game if they beat us. They had a lot to play for. And we didn’t really have anything to play for, in the general eyes. I thought it was cool to give him that farewell party, if that makes sense. The way we did it, with all the underlying meaning of it.
PK Sam Ficken: We knew from the get-go that O’Brien’s dream and passion was to coach in the NFL. When he was at Penn State, he was going to do everything he could to be the best coach and leader of the program when he was there. All the guys respected his decision. We were somewhat disappointed. But he was upfront that it was a lifelong dream to coach at the level he’s at now. You always want to leave on a high note, and I was happy to be a part of that high note.
WR Geno Lewis: He’s one of the realest coaches and people I’ve ever met. … He doesn’t beat around the bush. And I’m really happy for him now.
TE Adam Breneman: I don’t think Coach O’Brien gets enough credit for what he did and how he held that place together. He was the perfect hire at the perfect time. … Obviously it was frustrating when he left. Me, Christian, Garrett Sickels, Brendan Mahon, Brandon Bell, we went there for Coach O’Brien. We loved Penn State, and we loved the fan base. But at that point, there wasn’t much to play for. We wanted to play for Bill O’Brien. After that Wisconsin game, we were walking off the field, and Coach O’Brien came over and put his arm around me and said, ‘I’m so proud of you. It’s going to be a hell of a next few years.’ I left that game feeling pretty confident in my career and where I stood in Coach O’Brien’s mind. If you told me then I would never catch a pass again at Penn State and Coach O’Brien would never coach again at Penn State, I probably would have called you nuts.
A significant part of O’Brien’s legacy — and something the program hangs its hat on — is that Penn State never had a losing season during the sanction years. Not in 2012 and 2013 when O’Brien was at the helm. Not in 2014 and 2015, when scholarship limitations really hit home for Franklin and his staff.
So for the Nittany Lions to pull out win No. 7 at Wisconsin was important. For Hackenberg. For Breneman. For all the players in that Camp Randall away locker room. But also for what was to come. For what lay ahead at Penn State.
PK Sam Ficken: I know a lot of people focus on that 2012 team as the saving year of everything. But there were some tough bits between then and when the sanctions got lifted. The scholarship limit, that took more of a toll later on than right away. And I think people sometimes forget that.
LB Brandon Bell: The Wisconsin win might not be considered what people remember as the turning point, and I’m not sure if it is. But they were supposed to win the Big Ten that year. And not having a losing season, that could have changed a lot of things. If the record was something else, maybe we don’t get a few recruits the next year. I don’t know. College football is kind of crazy like that. That game could have changed someone’s perspective.
TE Adam Breneman: I think that win over Wisconsin, that was the one that shocked the world. Looking at the circumstances, it was something no one would have ever expected. … Not even two years before that, people were saying we weren’t going to be able to field a football team for a decade, and that we’d be no better than a Division III program. To think that within a couple years of that, we upset a top-10 Wisconsin team was pretty exciting. It was one of those moments that the Penn State fan base needed to say, ‘Hey, we’re back, and we’re not going anywhere.’
QB Christian Hackenberg: In 2013, we were playing with 43 scholarship guys. You know? And we won seven games in the Big Ten, and we were in every game with the exception of Indiana toward the end and Ohio State. I just thought that was an epitome of what that program was from a player standpoint. The type of guy that went there, it was scratching, clawing, doing whatever you had to do to make sure you win games and do it for the guys standing next to you. … What we did was pretty unprecedented. I’d challenge to see how many other programs in the country could have stuck through that together with everything going on. And not only survive, but we were in it. We were winning games. … We had to do it with less, and we did it.