On the decisive play, their names were instantly familiar.
Grant Haley made the hit, Marcus Allen made the assist. They are two names that were already entrenched in Penn State football history, a blocked field goal and return touchdown to beat the No. 2 team in the country in a season-changing win. That night in October made Saturday night possible, and with the Big Ten championship on the line, Haley and Allen were there to finish what they started.
On fourth-and-one at the 24-yard line, 1:05 to play in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin running back Corey Clement ran right but was hit by Haley, and Allen came in to complete the tackle short of the first down. The fourth-down stand capped an improbable finish to an improbable season-long comeback story.
No. 7 Penn State beat No. 6 Wisconsin 38-31 in Indianapolis, erasing a 28-7 first-half deficit with a barrage of big plays from quarterback Trace McSorley and his receivers. McSorley completed 22 of 31 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns, breaking school records while throwing for more yards than anyone has put up against the Badgers since 2009.
And as Penn State stood where nobody could have possibly thought it would be standing only a few weeks ago, on a stage in Indianapolis hoisting the Big Ten championship trophy, coach James Franklin turned the focus forward, using Fox commentator Joel Klatt's questions to help implore the College Football Playoff selection committee to put Penn State in on Sunday.
"What I do know," Franklin said, "is we just won the toughest conference in college football. We've won nine straight. They say you're allowed to overcome early setbacks, we've done that.
"It's on you now, the committee."
The committee ultimately left Penn State out on Sunday, but it does nothing to diminish the Nittany Lions' turnaround.
Two months ago, Penn State had just lost by 39 to Michigan and was 2-2 because a comeback similar to Saturday's fell short at Pittsburgh. The Lions then trailed Minnesota 13-3 at halftime. Instead of teetering toward disaster, Penn State instead went the other way and has won nine games in a row, coming from nowhere to win the Big Ten East, ahead of top-five Ohio State and Michigan teams, and now capture its first Big Ten championship since 2008. They've developed a fast and fun big-play offense, and now they own wins over the No. 2 Buckeyes and the No. 6 Badgers -- plus a championship of what has been the strongest conference, at least at the top.
That the Nittany Lions emerged from nowhere to give the committee something to think about, that Franklin argued for a playoff bid not long after some people were arguing about is job, is an incredible accomplishment.
For a while, it didn't look like it would happen on Saturday, either. Wisconsin controlled the game early, with an eight-minute touchdown drive on its first possession, then a 67-yard run by Clement. Penn State responded with its first long touchdown -- a 33-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki -- but the game began spinning out of control for the Lions.
A bad snap was gathered by Ryan Connelly and returned for a Wisconsin touchdown. Then, Penn State failed to convert a fourth-and-two at its own 42-yard line, failed to fall on a Wisconsin fumble and soon allowed a TD by Dare Ogunbowale. On its next drive, Penn State was stopped on another fourth down, giving Wisconsin the ball with a 28-7 lead late in the second quarter.
All season long, Penn State has thrived with second-half surges, but it was a big ask this time against what's been one of the best defenses in the country all year. And yet: The Lions didn't wait until the second half to start the comeback. McSorley led a 90-yard TD drive capped by a 40-yard pass to Saeed Blacknall to give the Lions hope entering halftime, down 14.
Wisconsin missed a field goal out of halftime, and Penn State chucked it deep again, McSorley connecting with Blacknall for a 70-yard touchdown to get the Lions back into the game.
After a Saquon Barkley touchdown to tie and a Badgers field goal, McSorley connected on passes of 38 and 25 yards before finding Barkley on an 18-yard wheel route to give Penn State the lead.
Wisconsin had allowed three touchdowns in a game only once this season. Penn State, despite early issues on the offensive line, began attacking Wisconsin deep, continuing a trend during the nine-game winning streak, and scored four touchdowns in 18 minutes to take the lead. To start the second half, McSorley completed his first nine passes for 189 yards and three TDs, numbers that led to him earning the game's most valuable player honors.
Penn State's defense stepped up, forcing a punt, and the Lions then marched down the field and kicked a field goal to go up seven with 5:14 left.
As it typically does, Wisconsin worked methodically, making its final possession into a do-or-die drive as time ticked away. The Badgers went 51 yards in 10 plays, covering 4 minutes, 13 seconds. Needing a first down to extend the game, the final Clement run was stuffed by Haley and Allen, one yard short, and the Lions were able to run out the clock and celebrate.
Nobody believed in Penn State two months ago, and that status was deserved at the time. It was the same story in the first half against Wisconsin. But we've seen this before, double-digit comeback wins against Minnesota and Ohio State and Indiana, we've seen the second-half scoring flurries by a rejuvenated offense led by first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead.
On Saturday night, it all came together to put on a dazzling display, capped by Haley and Allen re-emerging to put the finishing touches on the improbable story they started.
Penn State is 11-2, Big Ten champion, a winner over Ohio State and Wisconsin. This season will be celebrated as perhaps the most stunning season in school history, one that was fittingly capped by a stunning comeback. Nothing the committee decided will change that.