INDIANAPOLIS — As Penn State's band played and Lucas Oil Stadium rocked, thousands of fans clad in their traditional white shirts chanted "We Are Penn State."
It might have been more fitting if had it been "We are Penn State — and we are back."
Five years after a child sex abuse scandal tainted the reputation of the school and its football program along with the legacy of late coach Joe Paterno, quarterback Trace McSorley put the Nittany Lions squarely back in the national spotlight Saturday night with an epic 38-31 come-from-behind victory over No. 6 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. It was the largest comeback in the six-year history of the game.
Before coach James Franklin left the field, he was already lobbying the playoff committee to put No. 8 Penn State in the final four.
"What I do know is that we just won the toughest conference in college football," he said. "We've won nine straight. They say you're allowed to overcome minor setbacks. We've done that. It's up to you, committee."
The Nittany Lions' resume is impressive.
Since rebounding from a 39-point thumping against Michigan on Sept. 24, Penn State (11-2, No. 7 CFP) has won every game, handed No. 2 Ohio State its only loss of the season and on Saturday rallied from a 21-point first-half deficit to end the Badgers' six-game winning streak. Penn State also finished as co-champs of the Big Ten East, a division many considered the toughest in the nation, and now has its first conference crown in eight years.
Many, including die-hard Penn State fans, wonder whether that will be enough to jump up three spots in the committee's rankings. Some fans even held signs that read "we smell roses."
While McSorley, who was named the game's MVP after a record-breaking performance, has even higher hopes, he's content to let his coach lobby for a playoff spot.
"Coach said what he needed to say, I'm going to enjoy this moment with my teammates," McSorley said before leaving the stage on the field.
It was certainly a moment worth savoring.
McSorley finished 22 of 31 for 384 yards with four TD passes, breaking the title game records for yards and TD passes. He also broke the school's single-season records for yards passing and touchdown passes.
And McSorley wasn't the only one putting on a show. Saeed Blacknall caught six passes, two for touchdowns, and finished with a championship-game record 155 yards. DaeSean Hamilton caught eight passes for 118 yards, most in the second half when the Nittany Lions repeatedly burned the nation's No. 3 defense with deep throws.
What was most impressive was how they won it.
Penn State trailed 28-7 with 5:15 left in the first half. That's when McSorley and the Nittany Lions' offense finally got in sync by scoring touchdowns on each of their next four possessions — the last an 18-yard TD pass to Saquon Barkley with 13:41 left in the game. The Nittany Lions never trailed again.
"They made some plays down the field and we didn't make enough to make McSorley feel uncomfortable," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
Wisconsin (10-3, No. 6 CFP) played without starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook but jumped to the big lead behind Corey Clement, who ran 21 times for 164 yards including a 67-yard TD run in the first quarter.
But the Badgers' usually stout defense allowed a season-high point total.
Wisconsin's final chance ended when Clement was stopped short of a first down on fourth-and-1 from the Penn State 24-yard line with 1:01 to go.
Penn State: Consider the turnaround is complete. Five years after the Jerry Sandusky scandal tainted the program and the late Joe Paterno's legacy, and the ensuing NCAA sanctions seemed to put the Nittany Lions on the fast track to nowhere, they are Big Ten champs and look like a real national championship contender.
Wisconsin: After winning their first two title game appearances, the Badgers have now lost their two — in shocking fashion. Coach Paul Chryst never could have expected this from a defense that hadn't allowed more than 30 points all season and had only allowed No. 2 Ohio State to gain more than 400 yards in a game this year.
Penn State: Coach James Franklin insisted all week that his team was focused more on winning a Big Tentitle. Now, the lobbying can begin — if Franklin wants to. The argument goes like this: Co-champs of the toughest division in college football, championship game winners of the best conference in football and the only team to beat No. 2 Ohio State. Will it be enough?
Wisconsin: In the first half, the Badgers looked like they would be making their case to the committee. Instead, the Badgers have no idea what will happen next.
Penn State: Will eagerly wait to see who is next on the schedule.
Wisconsin: Will wait to see who the Badgers will get in the postseason, one that could have been much more interesting had they protected their lead.