MADISON, Wis. - There were two Orange Bowl scouts in the Camp Randall Stadium press box on Saturday.
They were not here to see Penn State, of course, as the Nittany Lions remain ineligible for the postseason, barring an NCAA reversal, for two more seasons.
But you can be sure they left here anticipating the Lions' return to bowl eligibility and the eventual enthusiasm from a starved Nittany Nation that by then will accompany it.
Saturday stoked those sentiments in a big way as Penn State put together its most inspirational performance in memory, controlling No. 14 Wisconsin throughout the second half, winning 31-24 and serving notice that when the NCAA cloud is lifted, this will be a program to be reckoned with once again.
"We're still building to the future," PSU junior linebacker Mike Hull said. "We're trying to get these sanctions behind us and keep the Penn State tradition rolling."
Against a Wisconsin team eager to avenge last year's 24-21 overtime loss at Beaver Stadium and still in the BCS bowl hunt, you got the distinct sense that as one season was ending for Penn State, another - actually an era - was just beginning.
That's the case when you have a great quarterback, and Christian Hackenberg certainly put an exclamation point on his first year with a 21-for-30, 339-yard, four-touchdown, no-pick, no-sack showcase for the ages.
Hackenberg threw deep, short and spread it around. He showed line-of-scrimmage command, pocket presence and improved touch. Even the few passes he missed were catchable.
"He's a good young player," Bill O'Brien said, "and I think if he continues to work, he has a chance to be really good."
Penn State played its best game of the season on both sides of the ball.
Its defense did not allow the Badgers' feared rushing game to dominate as it has most of the season, and the Nits continued their late-season improvement by intercepting three passes to go with three sacks.
John Butler went to a five-man front, mixed up blitzes and trotted out a number of young players, particularly in the secondary, that should bode well for the future.
The offensive line protected Hackenberg well and, though it was hit with an incredible eight false-start penalties - could that be an NCAA record? - it opened enough holes for Zach Zwinak to keep the Badgers' defense honest.
The combination helped overcome the usual special-teams gaffes, but make no mistake: The difference in this game was Hackenberg. He gave the Lions a vertical, big-play offense that produced four 50-plus yard plays.
His performance this year and his ability to read defenses and adjust on the fly is a tribute to O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, who mentored Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt, not to mention Matt McGloin last year.
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The presence of a young quarterback like Hackenberg can translate into further recruiting success, and O'Brien did note Saturday's win, "will help us in the offseason."
But for as much as the Lions' passing game is refreshing to watch, the resolve with which the program continues to operate - with just 62 players here Saturday - is equally impressive.
Penn State has never been a 24-point underdog before. O'Brien milked that motivational angle to the hilt this past week, and the team backed him up.
"These are the type of kids we have," O'Brien said.
Though the team had lost all three of its previous Big Ten road games this season, O'Brien tried to draw on the positives and felt, "We were close if we could eliminate mistakes."
Saturday validated that sentiment as the Lions committed no turnovers and did not fumble.
"We came out on top against a very good team, a team ranked 15th in the country and deservedly so," O'Brien said. "We knew they were very good, but we thought we were pretty good."
He was right, and, consequently, for the second straight year, the Lions will begin their offseason remembering their feeling as they celebrated with the Blue Band members on hand, and they howled their way up the Camp Randall tunnel to the visitors' locker room.
"Great scene," O'Brien said.
Kind of like ending the season by winning a bowl game. The only difference is the flashy blazers weren't hanging around, glad-handing, in the post-game interview area.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.