Punt penalty rescues Badgers, dooms MSU

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
2:03
AM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- The first call came from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.

He decided to come after the punt. Again. Wisconsin had changed its protection after Dantonio's Spartans blocked a punt in a Oct. 22 contest in East Lansing. But the alignment left a man free, and Michigan State's Tony Lippett nearly had blocked a punt earlier in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game.

"With 1:57 to go, it's my call," Dantonio said. "I told them, 'Let's go for the block.'"

As Wisconsin cornerback Antonio Fenelus lined up as a gunner, he saw his teammates in disarray. The Badgers tried to gauge whether Michigan State would go for the block or the return, and the coaches wanted long snapper Kyle Wojta to hold off on snapping the ball.

"I was right next to where the coaches were," Fenelus said. "They were telling him not to snap the ball and he did."

Fullback Bradie Ewing sensed a potential problem from his spot at left guard.

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"There was a little bit of miscommunication," Ewing said. "I didn't know if we were just going to hold the snap and not snap it. But as far as I knew, we were running the protection, [Wojta] hiked it, I released out and I heard the crowd scream and yell like they do when it's a blocked punt."

The reaction came not from a block this time, but from the penalty flags strewn on the field.

Officials flagged Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis for running into punter Brad Nortman. The 5-yard penalty resulted in a first down and allowed Wisconsin to run out the clock to seal a 42-39 victory.

"He hit him," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "He got the 5-yard penalty, gave us the first down. It is what it is."

Not surprisingly, Dantonio had a different take.

"I don't know if he hit him," Dantonio said. "You guys probably have a better view of that and have seen all the replays. But [the officials] threw the flag. Thought [Nortman] flopped a little bit. If [Lewis] hit him, he just nicked 'em."

Nortman's assessment isn't too far off from Dantonio's.

"There was certainly some contact," Nortman said, smiling. "It doesn't hurt to put a little bit extra on it, however. I wasn't thinking before the play, 'I'm going to take a flop here,' but when you're in the air and a little vulnerable, a little bit extra didn't hurt."

It brought out the flag, which is all that matters. Fenelus, meanwhile, began chasing Michigan State returner Keshawn Martin, who returned a punt for a touchdown in last year's win against Wisconsin and had tortured the Badgers yet again Saturday night (115 receiving yards, 26 rush yards).

Martin broke free and sprinted down the sideline until Nortman knocked him out of bounds just shy of the goal line.

"It was a great relief," Fenelus said. "Knowing that they could end up winning the game off of that if there wasn't a penalty on the play."

Nortman wasn't surprised Michigan State came after the punt, calling the Spartans "an aggressive team." Lining up deep in Wisconsin territory, he knew he couldn't afford another disaster after having punts blocked in both of Wisconsin's losses.

"Special teams might have been part of the issue in the losses," Nortman said. "It was great to be part of a win today."

Dantonio and his players repeatedly referred to a "game of inches" after the loss. While the punt play will be discussed for some time, Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins tried to deflect the spotlight.

"There was no one play that lost this football game," Cousins said. "We don't think Isaiah needs to be singled out. He did nothing wrong. [Dantonio] calls for the block, you got to do that in that situation. He gave us 110 percent effort and the call doesn't go our way."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the field ...

"Best call of the game," Nortman said.

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