INDIANAPOLIS -- There would have been no qualifiers this time for Michigan State.
No talk of Hail Marys or fortunate breaks or uncharacteristic mistakes from the opponent everyone assumed was better and more talented. The win wouldn't have been chalked up to the home crowd or questionable timeout choices or a few good bounces or the lack of penalty flags on the turf.
Had Michigan State held on to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, the Spartans would have earned every bit of the victory. For most of the night, they had been the better team, the more dominant team, the better prepared team, the more energized team. Their offense was seemingly unstoppable, racking up 23 first downs and 471 total yards. After a rough start, their defense made more plays than Wisconsin's, receiving a huge performance from linebacker Denicos Allen (3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss) and others.
Michigan State would be heading to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years, and no one would be questioning whether the Spartans were the Big Ten's best team. The Spartans might have finally grasped the thing that eluded them despite another 10-win season: respect.
But what seemed so inevitable throughout Saturday night didn't come to pass. A handful of plays and a handful of mistakes kept the Spartans from putting roses between their teeth and celebrating with their large contingent of fans.
What if Isaiah Lewis never touches Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman? What if coach Mark Dantonio doesn't go for the punt block? What if quarterback Kirk Cousins takes off and runs on third-and-8 rather than attempt a tough throw to Keshawn Martin?
"It's tough," said Cousins, who was brilliant Saturday night with 281 pass yards and three touchdowns. "Came close two years in a row. It's tough."
In 2010, the BCS standings kept Michigan State from Pasadena even though the Spartans had beaten Wisconsin, which received the Big Ten's automatic berth. While the Spartans had a legitimate gripe, Dantonio noted that they didn't look BCS-worthy in a blowout loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
Saturday night, they looked the part, which might be the most painful element of the loss. Michigan State looked better than Wisconsin and had the edge in first downs (23-16), rushing yards (190-126) and total yards (471-345).
"We felt like we were having our way offensively all game long," Cousins said.
Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar called an excellent game, employing swing passes to capitalize on the Spartans' superior speed on the edge.
The defense recovered from a 21-point first quarter to allow minus-4 yards in the second quarter. Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson had only 30 passing yards in the first half. Badgers running back Montee Ball had only 32 rushing yards on 14 carries in the final three quarters.
"It's tough to deal with it," Dantonio said, "because you're going to replay a lot of things in your mind because you are so close. It could be one little thing, one little inch here or there and we could have won the football game."
Michigan State's loss likely takes the Spartans out of BCS at-large contention, while their rival Michigan, a team the Spartans beat on Oct. 15, could reach a BCS bowl. Dantonio made one final plea for his team.
"I do think the two best teams in the Big Ten played today," he said. "I do think we're worthy to compete and play at a BCS level, but you've got to get the votes to do that. I do believe we're a BCS-type football team."
The Spartans performed like one for much of the night. And while their Rose Bowl drought will reach a quarter-century, the program is getting closer and closer to its ultimate goal.
"Very difficult, the end of the football game, the way it all went down," Dantonio said. "But we'll rise again."