October Homecoming Surprise: Spartans Come Back to Stun the Badgers at the Buzzer 37-31!

Jonathan Schopp

The scoreboard over an empty Spartan Stadium reads 37-31 MSU, but in the end there was just one play’s difference between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Michigan State Spartans. In what could go down as the game of the year in the Big Ten (if not the nation), the Spartans and Badgers produced another instant classic in a game that saw the lead swing an amazing 28 points from start to finish.

On a picture perfect Mid-October night, 76,405 fans got exactly what they wanted in arguably the best game Spartan Stadium has seen in more than a decade.  As fans on both sides know, this rivalry has naturally grown by leaps and bounds over the last 5 years, as each side has become to see a lot of themselves in one another. Tonight it took Michigan St.-Wisconsin into a whole new hemisphere.

Wisconsin has probably the best Offense the Spartans will see all year, and were flying on all cylinders coming into the night game at Spartan Stadium. The Spartan Defense, though short standout Defensive End William Gholston (So. DE), was coming off their two most dominant performances, back-to-back, since before the digital age. But never has a such a huge Spartan victory looked so bad early on.

After Kevin Muma (Rs.-So. K) booted it into the End Zone to start, the Badgers came out of and cruised down the field 80-yards for the game’s opening score. Starting from the ground up with 46 rushing and a nice mix of 34 through the air, Heisman candidate Russell Wilson (Sr. QB) took a first bite out of the Spartan Stadium crowd with a 9-yard TD pass to Jacob Pedersen (Rs.-So. TE ).

And on the Spartans’ first play from scrimmage on the day, Edwin “Rock” Baker (Jr. RB) took the hand off cleanly from Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB), but coughed it up after a hit from Wisconsin’s Mike Taylor (Rs.-Jr. LB). The Badgers recovered at the MSU 30, and the Spartans were quickly on their heels quick and in danger of falling two-scores behind the “built to run from the front” Wisconsin attack.

Three plays and a Spartan Nation blink of an eye later, Montee Ball (Jr. RB) breezed through the Spartan Defense 9-yards to make it 14-0 with 7:42 left in the 1st. MSU had essentially spotted the #4 team in the Nation 7-points at home, and the amped atmosphere inside of Spartan stadium had suddenly gone to mute. The only thing on the Spartans' side at that point was the clock. In the end, there'd be just barely enough.

After moving if from their 20 only to the MSU 42, Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) was in to punt. And to their disadvantage, the Spartan Defense had only 4:03 of rest to prepare for drive they had to stop Wisconsin on. To fall more than 14 behind Bucky Badger is practically guarantee a very long day. Once Russell Wilson (Sr. QB) had moved it to the 49, he looked for his top receiver Nick Toon (WR) coming across the middle on a post. Toon didn’t look ready for the pass at all, and when the ball was thrown behind him, Senior Captain Trenton Robinson (DB) was on the spot for the momentum reversing play the Spartans’ sorely needed.

Robinson’s pick rejuvenated the Spartan Stadium faithful, and the Spartan Offense had a shot to pull MSU back in it to start the 2nd after Le’Veon Bell (So. RB) closed out the 1st with a boosting 37-yard carry. Yet, after only going backwards 4-yards from there, Sadler again pinned an opponent deep, this time cornering Bucky to his own 5-yard line.

Things suddenly got tough for Wisconsin deep in the MSU Student Section end of the field as the Spartan D stepped up to stuff Ball for a 2-yard loss before chasing Russell Wilson on 2nd down for a Safety. Wilson was pressured from the snap, and after turning to his right, ran quickly out of real estate. As he flung it out of bounds to the Wisconsin sideline, no Badger receiver was anywhere on that side of the field, and Wilson still inside the Tackle Box. It was a momentum bursting 2 points (and fitting the tip of the cap to the Spartans' #2, Gholston) the Spartans sorely needed. Perhaps just as important, the Defense brought the crowd right back in it. Spartan Stadium has a long history of getting loud for Defense, and tonight they showed entire nation once again.

With the crowd’s energy back in it, Captain Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) looked like one (a Captain) to start perhaps the “swing” drive of the game. 4-plays and 72-yards later, the joint was jumping around even higher after Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) took a Triple-Option-Reverse for a 34-yard score to make it 14-9. A game that Wisconsin was in total control of less than two minutes earlier had quickly slid back to a one-score game. However much the Spartan Stadium flame had shrunk in the 1st Quarter, it was all the way back and blowing up early in the 2nd.

Coming back the other way and facing a 3rd and 6 from the 50, Wilson made his best throw of the half when he found Jared Abbrederis (So. WR) to keep the drive going and settle down the jolted Badgers. A 21-yard run on the next snap from Abbrederis, and Bucky Badger was back knocking on the MSU door. But on the series 3rd and 2 from the 14, Kyler Elsworth (Rs.-So. LB) stuffed James White (So. RB) to set up a 4th and 1 from the MSU 13.

Playing on the road, and wisely playing the percentages, Badgers Head Coach Brett Bielema sent out his solid Kicker Philip Welch (Sr.) out for what appeared to be a simple 30-yard chip shot from the favored hash for a Right Footer. But what sounded simple for Wisconsin in the 2nd Quarter tonight was anything but that.

A bad snap led to an out of rhythm play, and left open space for MSU to change the game entirely. When Darqueze Dennard ( So. CB) came in flying and stuffed the kick that would’ve put Wisconsin up 17-9, any remaining momentum Wisconsin had snatched in the 1st Quarter had evaporated into the middle of the still air. As key as Dennard’s block was, the Spartans needed points to capitalize and turn the momentum all the way back to completely reverse the downhill grade the Badgers had been rolling on early.

Starting from their 24, the Spartan Offense built on its 2nd Quarter groove as Offensive Coordinator Dan Roushar kept them rolling to rip the Badgers up on 8 plays for 80-yards, and the highly improbable (if you saw the start) 16-14 lead.

With the juices flowing at full speed once again, the Spartan Offensive line raised their game to push the Badgers back enough on the ground to give MSU the confidence to go just about anywhere they wanted in their play book. But after moving it to the Wisconsin 34, the Spartans faced a 4th and 2, and Mark Dantonio faced another big time Fourth Down call.

To Senior Offensive Lineman Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald, there wasn’t much of a question. They wanted to go for it just as the Spartans’ had in Coach D’s absence against Wisconsin a year ago. But instead of predictably going for the yard on the ground, the Spartan Coaching Staff put the ball in their Senior Captain’s hands, and he delivered big time.

It’s predictable that when Cousins has to complete a pass, he’s going to look for B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR). But not many Defenses have been able to stop it over the last three years. Add Wisconsin to that list as the Red Shirt connection hit for the 34-yard TD that blew the roof off of Spartan Stadium to the loudest volume it’s heard in very long time, and at least since the switch to grass in the early 2000s.

With Wisconsin completely frozen like the worst of the deer in headlights you could ever come across, Brett Bielema needed to calm his team down and get them out of final 80-seconds of the half and into the locker room to figure out how what in the world had just happened.

Starting for their 31, that didn’t look too tough a task. Yet, after a monster 10-yard sack from Denicos Allen (Rs.-So. LB) on 1st down, things again wouldn’t be that simple. Allen’s sack queued Dantonio to use his first Time Out to turn the heat up a little further on Wisconsin. Two plays and two Spartan Time Outs later, Bucky faced a 4th and 5 from his 36, and had to punt.

Special Teams’ Coordinator Mike Tressel and Mark Dantonio had something up their sleeve. Showing the Badgers a “Chaos” look at the line, Wisconsin didn’t know what to or quite who to block. Already having made a huge 3rd down play earlier, Kyler Elsworth took another bow on the National TV stage by blocking the punt and sending Spartan Nation into its highest frenzy of the already wild 2nd quarter. As the ball bounded backwards towards the Badger End Zone, Spartans swarmed the ball and Bennie Fowler (Rs.-So WR) came up with the ball to put MSU up 23-14.

Elsworth’s block and Fowler’s recovery capped off the most exciting Half in Spartan Stadium in modern history, if not since the dawn of color television. After being backed up to the ropes and set up for a potential 1st Half Wisconsin-Knock Out, MSU not only fought its way out of the corner, they turned the game completely upside down and pushed Wisconsin into their own corner to end the Half.

Never has a visiting team run out Spartan Stadium and into their locker room any faster than Wisconsin did tonight. They went from completely rolling and thinking about playing for a potential National Championship bid to trying to find a break to pull themselves together before heading back into the Woodshed for what might be coming next.

Out of the gate and looking to pick up where they left off before the Half, MSU started at their 28 but stalled out around mid-field to set up a Sadler punt. Sadler looked to pin the Badgers deep yet again, but misfired for probably the first time this season out of bounds at the Wisconsin 26. For the Badgers, finally something went their way.

Needing to stop the bleeding and cut into the still surprising MSU lead, Wilson drove the Badgers 58-yards on 8 plays to set up a 33-yard Field Goal for Philip Welch. Yet, after a 22-yard pass to Montee Ball earlier in the drive, the Badgers had it to the MSU-19 and were looking for the bounce-back TD. The Spartan Defense made another statement, however, and stopped the Badgers best shot at regaining a much needed spark. 3-points was a start, but not at all they needed to snap out of their emotional dip.

As the 3rd Quarter closed, the Spartans were again on the move with their 23-17 lead. Behind a strengthening Le’Veon Bell, MSU had moved from their 20 to the Bucky 15, but faced a key 3rd and 11. Cousins found another Spartan hot hand in Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) with enough space to again make a play and stretch the lead to 29-17. Given the math, Coach D decided a 2-point try was in order. Cousins went to his #1 target, Cunningham, with a perfectly placed pass to stretch the lead to 14, 31-17. Spartan Nation could sense a happy Homecoming result. But this one wasn't as "over" as it looked quite yet.

As Wilson began the Badger drive at the MSU 43 after a strong kick return with 8:04 left in the game, things were about to get tight again. Ball went for 21 on the ground, and then Wilson made the kind of play that’s made him a star with as 22-yard scramble for the TD to cut it to 31-24. That play changed everything. Wisconsin wasn't going down without a very serious fight.

A Spartan 3 and Out later, Wilson took over at his 25 but tried to do too much on the opening pass attempt and threw a pick on the sideline to Isaiah Lewis (So. DB). Lewis' INT looked like the break MSU would need to seal the deal and close Wisconsin out with only 6:54 to burn. But another 3 and Out later and terrific Sadler punt later, Bucky was back in business. From their own 13, Wisconsin marched 87-yards on 8 plays to square things up at 31 with 1:26 left on the clock. Credit Wisconsin for finishing a game in which they both blown a 14-point lead and come back from a 14-point hole.

Starting from his own 22, Kirk Cousins went into the “2-minute” Offense. Once he converted a very key 3rd and 7 to Le’Veon Bell to slow the mounting Badger momentum, Cousins was sacked on 1st down and Wisconsin took a Time Out with 42 ticks left. After Cunningham eluded a Badger tackler to pick up 12 on 2nd down, another Badger Time Out set up a 3rd and 8 the Spartans had to have.

Cousins flipped a brilliantly schemed shovel pass to Martin, who dashed through space in the middle to the MSU 47 for the 1st. The next two snaps yielded only 3-yards, and the Spartans were left out of Place Kicker Dan Conroy’s range. There was only one hope after the last Wisconsin Time Out, the traditional "Hail Mary."

Throwing to the End Zone on the north-east side, the "Little Giants" side...if you will, Spartan Football needed an incredible stroke of luck to keep the incredible game with Wisconsin from going to Overtime. The ups and downs of the previous 59+ minutes had looked to completely even out in the end, but that final stroke of sudden Spartan luck came in the form of a bounce off B.J. Cunningham to an on the spot Keith Nichol, right at the Goal Line.

After Cunningham and a host of Badgers and Spartans went up for it, the ball took a bounce straight back and into Nichol's grasp. From behind the End Zone live, he appeared to have leaned his way in for the win. In fact, the Red-Shirt Senior had just enough strength, just enough time, just enough space, and just plain enough to reverse the initial call on the field that he was short of breaking the plane. Nichol completed the final Spartan prayer.

The replay showed it clearly. Nichol was in, and Spartan Nation went crazy as seen in the great last-second game winning passes of the past: Duckett, Haygood, and Gantt. Spartan Nation was once again treated to an all-time classic comeback, topped off by another all-time classic ending in that very special End Zone corner of Spartan Stadium. How fitting for Keith Nichol to catch that ball. It's like they say...Spartans Will.

Today's Three Stars

1. Kirk Cousins: He wasn't perfect, but for a while there he was pretty darn close. Cousins was sharp tonight and made a lot of the NFL caliber throws that can take his play to the elite level at the position. Better yet, Cousins helped steady a Spartan ship early that looked early like it would crash and sink like the blowout losses of 2010.

2. Kyler Elsworth: Stuffed perhaps the key 3rd down of the game that setup the blocked Field Goal try, and then topped that later by blocking the Punt that turned into a TD for the 23-17 lead.

3. Le'Veon Bell: By ground and then later by air, Bell seemed to get stronger as the game went on. He took it to Wisconsin for 87 hard earned yards on 16 carries, and was clutch through the air picking up 27 yards via 4 passes. He got more physical than anyone Wisconsin has seen to date this year, and set the tone as the Spartans swung the game 28-points into their favor.

Spartans Will.

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