Sunday, December 4, 2011
Badgers find uncommon route to title
By Brian Bennett
INDIANAPOLIS -- Russell Wilson had barely arrived in Madison this past summer when he shared his vision for the season.
"I want to be part of something special," the NC State transfer announced upon meeting his new Wisconsin teammates. "I don't want to be common. I want to be uncommon."
Very little was common about the first Big Ten championship game. A league known for grinding it out in cold weather put on a thrilling, offensive pingpong contest at Lucas Oil Field. Michigan State and Wisconsin figured to have a hard time matching their Oct. 22 classic, but they came pretty close to repeating it note for note. And the Badgers won 42-39 despite getting outgained and outplayed most of the night before somehow finding a way to secure their second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.
"The adversity we faced this season helped us tonight, I believe," Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing said. "To be able to battle back like that is special. You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."
A season that began with enormous expectations nearly came crashing down on consecutive October weekends, when Michigan State and Ohio State delivered last-minute, intestine-twisting, game-winning touchdowns. The Badgers had zero room for error after those two conference losses and needed help from other teams just to get to Indianapolis.
When they got here, they had to face a Spartans team that beat them in three of the previous four meetings. And the rematch began to play out in eerily similar fashion to Michigan State's 37-31 victory on Oct. 22 in East Lansing.
Just as in that game, the Badgers raced out to a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter, only to see the wheels come off. The Spartans outscored Wisconsin 23-0 in the second quarter of the first game; on Saturday, they ripped off 22 consecutive points to take a 29-21 halftime lead.
"For whatever reason, we don't play well in the second quarter against Michigan State," head coach Bret Bielema said. "So we survived it."
To be able to battle back like that is special," Russell Wilson said. "You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."
Wisconsin inched back into the game but still trailed 39-34 late in the fourth quarter and had little choice but to go for a fourth-and-6 from the 43-yard line. As he had been many times in the game, Wilson got flushed from the pocket by Michigan State's pressure. He flung a pass toward Jeff Duckworth, who had two Spartans covering him.
"I had to give him a shot," Wilson said. "It was pretty much the only thing I could do. I knew I had to throw it up and give it a chance."
Duckworth had broken his corner pattern to the inside -- "It was kind of a bad route, actually," he would say later. But the receiver who caught only 12 passes in the regular season went up and grabbed the ball for a first down at the 7. Montee Ball then did what he does best, scoring his 38th touchdown of the season, and Wilson scrambled until he could find Jacob Pedersen for the 2-point conversion.
The Duckworth pass brought back instant memories of Michigan State's Hail Mary pass to win in East Lansing on Oct. 22. That play started from 1 yard farther back on the field and also went toward the right corner of the end zone, although the degree of difficulty was higher. Karmic payback, perhaps?
"A common saying that we've been using quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is 'Those who are humbled will be exalted, and those who are exalted will be humbled,'" Bielema said. "And I thought that play right there gave justice to everything."
More weird turnarounds were at work. Special-teams breakdowns played a key role in both Badgers losses this season, as Michigan State and Ohio State each blocked a punt that was taken in for a score or directly led to a touchdown. Surely the Spartans considered that weak spot when they decided to go after a Wisconsin punt with less than two minutes left.
That proved disastrous when Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into punter Brad Nortman, resulting in a first down and Wisconsin bringing on the victory formation. (It only adds to the irony that Lewis made headlines before the first game when he said Michigan State's defense was going to hurt Wilson.) Nortman had an excellent game, averaging 45 yards on five punts, and Wisconsin actually forced a turnover in the kicking game to score a touchdown.
"I preached special teams all week," Bielema said.
This was an uncommon way to win a championship. The Badgers were outgained 471 to 345 by the Spartans and had only 126 rushing yards to Michigan State's 190. Ball alone ran for 105 yards in the first quarter before the normally powerful ground game stalled. Michigan State took advantage of Wisconsin's lack of speed on the edge of its defense most of the night. Look at the stat sheet, and it's hard to figure out how the Badgers won. But their entire season was about not staying down.
"With the team we had, we were thinking national championship," safety Aaron Henry said. "For us to lose the way we did in those two games, it was definitely devastating. [But] our guys rallied, and it pretty much unfolded in front of your eyes."
In Wilson's case, an ear told the story. He tucked a rose over his right ear and kept it there long after the game was over, savoring his first chance to play in a BCS bowl. His vision from the summer had been fulfilled.