Spartans Come up Inches Short, Lose a Heartbreaker to Wisconsin for the Big Ten and Rose Bowl bid, 42-39

Jonathan Schopp

With the Rose Bowl and Big Ten Championship on the line, the Spartans and Badgers played another instant classic to a controversial ending that will leave many in Spartan Nation bitter for a very long time. Following up the “game of the year” in College Football, the Spartans and Badgers went back and forth all night, and probably topped the Spartans “Hail Mary” winner earlier this fall. But behind a 14-point 4th Quarter, the Badgers snatched victory back from MSU, and with it the Big Ten Championship and prized Rose Bowl berth. It couldn’t have been any closer, nor a tougher loss to take.

Wisconsin won the toss and took the ball, immediately giving fans the desired match up of the Spartan D and the Badger O. After Kevin Muma’s (Rs.-So. K) average kickoff was returned to the Wisconsin 29, Russell Wilson (Sr. QB) and Montee Ball (Rs.-Jr. RB) went to work. Ball took a hand off on the first five snaps of the game, following the best Offensive Line in the country quickly to the MSU 28. Wilson then found Nick Toon (Sr. WR) on 1st Down for 22, down to the MSU 6.

The Spartans held Wisconsin short on the next two snaps, setting up a 3rd and Goal from the 3. Wisconsin spread it out, with only Ball in the backfield, and Wilson found Jeff Dunkworth (Rs.-So. WR) wide open underneath coverage for the easy Touchdown to make it 7-0. It wasn’t as dominant a drive as Wisconsin opened up with in October, but it was close.

Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr. RB) got things going the other way with a good return to the MSU 39. Wisconsin helped matters immediately by lining up Offsides and getting flagged on 1st down. But then MSU was hit with a False Start that was oddly not whistled until after Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) looked to be sacked for a very big loss, and the play was completed. It was the weirdest start of a Spartan drive all year.

So the first actual play from scrimmage was a 26-yard burst from Le’Veon Bell (So. RB) to the Wisconsin 33. Cousins next found Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) over the middle to the 20, and the Spartans were rolling. After Bell’s 2nd down run through four Badger tacklers got MSU to the 11, Edwin “Rock” Baker (Jr. RB) converted a 3rd of 1 to keep things going. Baker took the hand off from a shot gunned Cousins next, and ran for the front corner of the End Zone to tie it up at 7, closing out the 6 play, 59-yard drive. It had the looks of a shoot out early.

Muma’s second kick went out of bounds, giving the Badgers too generous a helping hand as Wisconsin would then start at their 40. Four snaps later, they had a 3rd and 2 from the MSU 42, and Wilson pitched to Montee Ball on his right. Ball ran to his right too, but then turned back to throw a beauty to Wilson, who was streaking up the sideline and then brought down hard at the 9. The Badgers were clearly running plays away from William Gholston’s (So. DE) side of the field, but that didn’t stop the impact Sophomore from making plays when he could early. Two runs from Ball later, Wisconsin was up 14-7 with 3:44 left in an action packed 1st. The Spartan kicking game had not made its last big mistake of the Half.

The second kick off to Hill turned out to ultimately be the play of the game, as Conor O’Neill (Rs.-So. LB) popped the ball clean out of Hill’s hands, and Jacob Pedersen (Rs.-So. TE) recovered it at the MSU 24. It was about the worst time to turn the ball over, and built on the awful start for the Spartan Special Teams.

The Spartan Defense had already given up 81 yards rushing to Ball, who went back to work on the short field and made it 21-7 only two snaps later. MSU’s Defense had spent too much of the 1st Quarter chasing Wilson and Ball, and not enough time staying fresh on the Spartan Sideline. In 32-seconds, the Badgers snatched the emotional edge, and the Spartans were in danger of a disastrous 1st Half. Like in October, however, there was still plenty of time left for the Spartans to climb out of a 14-point hole.

After a Badger Touchback, Cousins led the Offense back out needing to settle things down. With passes to Martin and Cunningham over the middle, he started to do so as MSU quickly moved into Wisconsin’s end. But MSU slowed from there to a 3rd and 4 with 40 seconds left. When Cousins dropped back and felt blitz pressure, he stepped through the pocket and dove for the 1st Down, but came up a yard short. As the Spartans walked off to the 1st Quarter’s end, they were left with a 4th and 1 from the Badger 30 to start the 2nd Quarter. The 1st Quarter was more of an Offensive explosion than planned, but was marred for the Spartans by mistakes in the kicking game that were the most responsible for the 14-point deficit.

Cousins lined up under center on the 4th and 1, and rolled out to Wisconsin’s surprise. The Badgers brought 9 men up, leaving no one to run with a streaking B.J. Cunningham down the seam. Cousins had plenty of time and space to loft the 22-yard TD pass to instantly snap the Spartans back into it emotionally, 21-14. It was already another Spartan-Badger football classic in the making.

Muma’s next kick was much better, taken only to the 23 by Jared Abbrederis. As the Badgers took the field again, Lucas Oil stadium was buzzing once again, and so was the Spartan D. They quickly had Wilson into a 3rd and 15 from his 19. Wilson saw nothing down field, and scrambled out of bounds for a few yards, leaving Wisconsin’s Chris Borland (So. LB) to punt. Martin fair caught the punt at the MSU 43.

The Spartan drive beginning with 13:03 left looked the most important of the Half, especially for the Badger Defense, which looked unprepared on the big 4th and 1 momentum swing. Riding Cousins hot hand, the Offense moved mostly through the air down to the UW 22.

On 1st down from the 22, Cousins threw high into triple coverage for Cunningham, but high enough for only him to catch, and the Senior brought it down well at the 11. Cousins threw to Nichol in the flat on the next snap, who ran four yards before being grabbed at the sideline. But Nichol wasn’t done. He saw Cunningham to his left, and incredibly (yet relatively safely) flipped the ball over to him, then watching Cunningham streak past a stunned set of Badgers for the score to make it 21-20.

An electrified Lucas Oil Stadium went up another notch as Dantonio and company called a perfect fake PAT, with Brad Sonntag (Sr. WR) taking off to his right (Dan Conroy behind him)  and running in for the 2-points completely untouched. The Badgers had gone from on top and rolling to quickly looking like a “Deer in the Headlights” once again when playing MSU. Brett Bielema was again looking out coached by Mark Dantonio in the early going.

After Muma touched Wisconsin back, Wilson was sacked for a heavy loss on 1st down by the swarming Spartan Dawgs, who then closed quickly on Montee Ball on a 3rd down to force another Badger punt on 4th and 13. Martin again had to fair catch it, this time at the 39.

The Spartans started with 8:42 in the 2nd and their momentum looking to explode. Yet, when Cousins went back on 1st down, he made a poor decision to throw towards Tight End Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr. TE) for an easy Badger interception. Cousins threw it right to Shelton Johnson (Rs.-Jr. DB) for ironically his first incompletion of the day. Wisconsin had it at their 41, and took a hunk of wind out of the Spartans sails.

After Kevin Pickelman (Rs.-Sr. DT) limped off the field after a 2nd and 10, Wilson was into a 3rd and 8 and under heavy pressure again from the speed of Denicos Allen, who sacked him for the second time of the day. Another punt was then fair caught by Martin, this time at the MSU 15. The Cousins pick ultimately cost MSU only field position and time off the clock.

After being held to just 4 yards on two runs, Cousins went back on 3rd and 6 and found Martin with another beautiful pass, just inside the sideline. Martin took the hand off on the very next snap and streaked up the sideline to the UW 43, then caught another pass in the flat to get to the 32. The Badgers again had no answer for Keshawn Martin tonight, but for a sideline and surprisingly flag that was thrown in the games finals minutes.

A Nichol flat pass and run from Bell later, the Spartans were moving downhill and into a 2nd and 2 from the Badger 6. Bell took the handoff and powered past the 1st Down marker and yet another Badger and into the End Zone to put the Spartans up 29-21.

Abbrederis was then limited to the Badger 21 on the Muma kick off. Wilson came back out with just over 3-minutes left, yet the Spartan Dawgs came hunting hard again, popping Wilson and Ball hard enough to force a fourth straight Brad Nortman punt. Martin fair caught it again at the 29 on what was a fine day for Nortman overall. Again, the Badgers were reeling at the end of the Half against MSU.

Though deep in their end, another outstanding MSU drive could’ve opened this one up a bit. Le’Veon Bell continued to dominate the Badgers by ground and by air, taking an initial 2nd and 16 for 14 yards to set up a manageable 3rd and 2, which he then converted to the Wisconsin 45. The Spartans then took their first Time Out, with 46-seceonds to go.

Following the TO, Cousins found Nichol for 8 yards on 2nd Down to set up a 3rd and 2. Brett Bielema then called Time Out, sensing urgency that his Badgers stop the 2nd Quarter bleeding (22-0).

Bell took the 3rd down hand off underneath from Cousins, and safely converted. And after quickly getting up to the line, caught a short pass again from Cousins to the 39, before taking their second TO. Martin caught the next ball in the flat (again), and stepped out of bounds at the Badger 35, bringing up 3rd and 2. But on that 3rd and 2, Cousins found Linthicum, who was not past the 1st Down marker, and came up short. It was the Offense’s most disappointing effort of the 2nd Quarter, leaving MSU in a tough spot.

As Dan Conroy came out with 2-seconds on the clock, he lined up for a 51-yarder from the left hash. That hash is not the favored for a right footer, and Conroy missed wide-right after a bad snap that was also could’ve thrown Conroy’s timing off just enough. Still, it was an amazing bounce back 2nd Quarter for the Spartans, who put their foot on the pedal and took the 29-21 lead into the Half.

The excitement of the 1st Half picked up exactly where things left off in October, with the Spartans 8-points ahead and just 30:00 away from earning a Rose Bowl bid. And just like October, the Spartans owned the 2nd Quarter with big plays from the Defense and powerful runs from Le’Veon Bell.

Hill took the 2nd Half kick out safely to the 26, but the Offense was quickly sent off with a 3 and Out by a Badger Defense that apparently made some adjustments. Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) was out for his first punt of the day, and booted it 45-yards before Abbrederis returned it for 10 to their 43.

Two snaps later, Wilson was into a manageable 3rd and 3, this time rolling and throwing to his right for Nick Toon (Sr. WR) to keep the chains moving. They next converted a 3rd and 1 with an Offsides call against Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT) on a play the Spartans had dropped Wilson for a big loss on. The call was right, but Worthy was barely ahead of the snap. Yet, the Spartan Dawgs kept hunting, and quickly had Wilson into a 3rd and 12. Wisconsin then was hit for a 5-yard False Start, making it 3rd and 17.

As Wilson dropped back, Johnny Adams (Rs.-Jr. CB) came free and clear on a corner blitz, but not only missed Wilson high, but also caught his face mask for a 15-yard flag. It was a monster mistake from Adams, and the turning point of the entire game because Wilson steadied himself and then heaved it towards the End Zone and an open Abbrederis for a 42-yard game changing score.

Had Adams done anything else, or simply made the fundamental tackle, Wilson doesn’t throw that Touchdown and the Spartans win the game. It’s not the Adams is entirely to blame for the Spartans loss, but rather to point out clearly where the momentum and luck of the game began to change the Badgers’ way.

Wisconsin easily pounded the short kick for the Touchback (after the penalty yards), and a revived Badger Defense stuffed MSU for only a yard on the first two downs. Wisconsin rushed only four on 3rd and 9, giving Cousins ample time to throw to Cunningham at the sideline for a big 1st Down. It was surprising Wisconsin didn’t bring extra pressure there, and it cost them.

The Spartans kept the drive going mostly through the air, and again got down to the Wisconsin 35, facing a 3rd and 3. When Cousins pass was tipped away by Aaron Henry (Rs.-Sr. DB), it brought up 4th and 3 with 5:00 to go. Caught in a tough spot on the field, Dantonio decided to let the Play Clock run out for a 5-yard Delay of Game, giving Mike Sadler a little more room. Given the time and score of the game, the field position risk was too big for the Spartans to try another long Field Goal.

Sadler made the very best of it, dropping a high and soft one with perfection that Tony Lippett (Rs.-Fr. DB) downed at the Badger 1. With shades of October in his head, Wilson led the Badgers to a 3rd and 5 from the 6, but this time Pat Narduzzi dropped his Dawgs into coverage and Wilson overthrew a well covered Toon. Nortman punted a 54-yard beauty from his End Zone that Martin brought back to the Badger 48.

After the drive was dinged with a 2nd Down “Ineligible Man Down Field” call that negated a 1st Down catch from Cunningham, Martin got most of that back on 2nd down to put MSU into a key 3rd and 6 from Badger 44. The Spartans used their first TO of the Half to prepare for it.

From an empty set, Cousins looked for Cunnigham over the middle, who was again poorly covered by the shaky Badger secondary. Cunningham caught it running across the field, picked up speed, and turned the corner for the 44-yard TD pass to get MSU back up by 8, 36-28.

MSU’s kick coverage struggled again after Muma’s ball was fielded at the 5. More than a few Spartans missed, and Wisconsin’s best all around threat catching the ball weaved 44-yards to the Badger 48. Two snaps later, a 3rd and 9 was converted by Wilson to Duckworth underneath coverage to keep the excitement going to close out the 3rd Quarter of play. The Spartans were up 36-28, 15:00 from a second straight Big Ten Championship, but with the final result far from settled.

From the MSU 37, Wilson found Pedersen wide open to the 24, and then Abbrederis for 12 yards to get swiftly to the Spartan 12. The next snap was a fade route in the End Zone to towards Toon that drew a Pass Interference flag on Johnny Adams to bring the Badgers to a 1st and Goal from the 2. Ball took an inside shovel pass through the line on 2nd Down to cut it to 36-34.

Bielema decided to go for the tie on the 2-point. Wilson dropped back and looked over the middle, but Jerel Worthy threw his hands up and deflecting the ball enough to avoid what would’ve been a game tying 2 points.

Hill took the kick back strong again, to the Badger 40, and the Offense needed to get points from that spot on the field. After a toss to Nichol pushed MSU over the 50, the MSU ground game set up a 3rd and 1 at the 41, which Bell soundly converted.

Bell then lined up in the “wildcat” and led a double-reverse that Cunningham took down to the 13. With the Badgers on their heels, the Spartans knew how big another TD would be. Two Bell hand offs set up a 3rd and 5 at the 8, which looked to be the biggest snap of the game and chance for the Spartans to put a hand on the Championship trophy.

Cousins looked for something over the middle, but had his ball to Martin tipped away by Chris Borland (So. LB), setting up a 25-yard Field Goal that Conroy nailed to make it 39-34. Had Cousins had another moment, he might have seen Cunningham open up in the End Zone, but though it wasn’t what the Spartans wanted, the kick created a 5-pont lead with 8:28 to go.

Abbrederis kept his fine night going with another big return on a short Muma kick, this time to the Badger36. With a sense of urgency, the Badger Offensive Line looked to lead the way, but faced a quick 3rd and 4 at their 42. This time, Wilson found a wide open Abbrederis in soft coverage along the sideline for 11 yards.

Next came a 3rd and 4 from the Spartan 42 with 5:30 left that Wisconsin sent backwards 5-yards with a False Start penalty. Wilson scrambled, finding no one open, and avoided Allen and the Spartans enough to turn a huge loss into 3 yards, setting up a 4th and 6. The Badgers had to have it, there was no point going for 3. The game was there for the Spartans to close out.

Scrambling to his left under pressure, but again avoiding a few would be sackers, Wilson launched another high one across the field and towards Duckworth, waiting at the MSU 7. Duckworth pulled it in and held onto it under duress from Trenton Robinson (Sr. DB) and Isaiah Lewis (So. SS), who couldn’t knock it away.

Ball took the next snap for the TD, untouched, making it 40-39. It was time for another 2-point try. This time, Wilson escaped the grasp of Worthy, again scrambling too long for the Spartans coverage to hang on with the Badger receivers, this time giving Pedersen enough time to find space in the middle of the End Zone to make it 42-39.

Appearing to fear a big return, the Badgers kicked it off quite short, which TyQuan Hammock (Rs.-So LB) brought to the MSU 37. Cousins stepped back in down 3, with 3:42 to go. His 1st Down pass was too high for Martin, who had two Badgers around him. Bell’s 2nd down run went only 2 yards, setting up 3rd and 8.

Cousins scrambled to his left, and threw for Martin who was in the air for the ball at the sideline. Called a catch and 1st Down on the field, the play went under review and it looked like Martin’s toe might have been inbounds before the rest of his left foot came down in the white. It was incredibly close to call, but replay ultimately determined it should be overturned for an incompletion to set up a 4th and 8 with 2:57 left. Dantonio decided to punt, and Sadler’s ball was downed by Abbrederis at the Wisconsin 19. The Spartans had two Time Outs to work with.

Looking to close the deal, Ball got 4 on 1st Down, and only 1 yard on 2nd Down. Whether the Spartans would get another shot would come down to a 3rd and 5. Rather than keeping the ball in Wilson’s hands, the Badgers handed off again to Montee Ball, who was stopped short to force a 4th and 3 punt that would become arguably the most famous punt in modern Big Ten history.

It was all set up for another clash of Keshawn Martin versus the Badgers. Martin famously burnt the Badgers in 2010, and was ready to make history again. The snap was clean, and Nortman got off a completely clean punt that Martin fielded and then went to work with. Dashing through the entire Badger defense, Martin got to around the Badger 3 before being pushed out of bounds. Martin had done it again. Instead of playing for a Field Goal to tie, the Spartans looked primed for a game winning TD from short yardage, and the Badgers defending the punt knew it. They collectively had no idea what had happened behind the play.

Isaiah Lewis was flagged for a 5-yard Running into the Kicker flag. Not the 15-yard roughing the kicker, but the less serious flag for running into the kicker that is generally considered to follow unintentional contact. That flag was thrown thanks to Brad Nortman’s hanging right leg. Nortman may have seen the Indianapolis native Lewis coming hard from his right, and left his leg up a little longer in hopes of drawing contact for a flag.

Nortman was bumped, and looked to flop on the ground in a style Bo Ryan (Wisconsin Basketball Coach) would appreciate, even though the ball was already gone and the kick unaffected. The flag leaves an incredible stain on what was a fantastic game. Whether or not the flag was warranted, it will ultimately be what this game is remembered for more than any other play. It will live in infamy and be criticized for the rest of the Big Ten’s history.

The flag gave the Badgers a new set of downs, clinched the Big Ten Championship game, and of course the Rose Bowl bid. Though the call on the final punt will be remembered most, it’s not the one that cost the Spartans the game. What cost the Spartans the game was the complete momentum change that started when Johnny Adams missed a clear sack of Russell Wilson that was converted for a 42 yard game changing Touchdown.

Adams mental mistake started a trend of Wisconsin fortune that continued when Wilson scrambled around long enough on 4th and 6 to convert the 36 yarder to Duckworth near the MSU Goal Line. Had that one been knocked out, or Wilson taken down earlier on either that 3rd or 4th Down, the Rose Bowl would’ve been the Spartans.

For Spartan Nation, it will be probably be remembered as another Rose Bowl bid that was taken away from MSU, this time by a flopping Badger punter and hyper sensitive Official. For Wisconsin, it’ll go down as the best comeback in the history of their program, with their all-world Quarterback Wilson turning two broken plays into a Rose Bowl dream come true.

“I thought we had the opportunity to win…I thought we deserved to win,” Dantonio said soon after his most bitter defeat. Most people that saw the game would find it hard to disagree.

It was an all-time classic game, but an awful ending for the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. No one ever wants to see a Championship determined by an Official more than the players on the field. Today you could make a strong argument that happened, especially since the Badger punt was not affected by Lewis’ contact after the kick.

It’s hard to say the better team won tonight as the Badgers’ fortune on a few key plays proved to be the 3-point difference. But the Badgers are going to the Rose Bowl, and they are the Big Ten Champions for 2011. The Spartans ultimately have themselves to blame much more than anyone else.

Today's Three Stars

1. Keshawn Martin—Even without the amazing final effort, Martin was awesome against Wisconsin once again. The Badgers could never figured this playmaker out.

2. Kirk Cousins—Though his shot at a Championship winning drive was taken away by the overturned Martin reception, and then the amazingly erased punt return, Cousins was a sharp 22/30 for 281 yards, 3 TDs, and the 1 INT.

3. Le’Veon Bell—He got things going out of the gate, and ran over and through the Badger Defense to set the game’s tone for the game until Adams missed Wilson on the game changing play.

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