Big Ten: Badgers-Spartans-111203

Video: Wisconsin's Bret Bielema

December, 4, 2011
AM ET Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg talks with Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.

Video: Wisconsin LB Chris Borland

December, 4, 2011
AM ET Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett talks with Wisconsin's Chris Borland.

Video: Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry

December, 4, 2011
AM ET Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett talks with Wisconsin's Aaron Henry.

Badgers find uncommon route to title

December, 4, 2011

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."

Russell Wilson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTo 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.

"We are definitely uncommon," he said.
It's time to hand out helmet stickers from an unforgettable inaugural Big Ten championship game.
  • Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: The senior once again came up big in the fourth quarter, and this time his efforts led to a come-from-behind win. After recording just 30 first-half passing yards, Wilson completed 12 of 15 pass attempts for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. He earned title game MVP honors for his efforts.
  • Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: Cousins was the best quarterback on the field for much of the night and seemed locked in from the start. He repeatedly found gaps in Wisconsin's defense and finished with 281 pass yards and three touchdowns, completing 22 of 30 attempts. The senior completed his first eight pass attempts.
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Although he faded after the first quarter, Ball still finished with another big touchdowns performance, scoring four times in Wisconsin's victory. He racked up 137 rush yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries and added a 5-yard scoring reception. Ball moved within one touchdown of Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record of 39.
  • Michigan State LB Denicos Allen: Allen was the most explosive defender on the field Saturday night. The sophomore recorded a career-high three sacks, the most by a Spartans player since Trevor Anderson had three against Michigan in 2008. Allen finished with four tackles for loss and nine total tackles.
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.

Keshawn Martin
Michael Hickey/US PresswireThere were no last-minute Hail Marys or miracles this time as Keshawn Martin and the Spartans fell to the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game.
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."
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.

[+] EnlargeKeshawn Martin
Richard Mackson/US PresswireLucas Oil Stadium hosted a thrilling Big Ten title game in December. Will the Indianapolis facility host a college football playoff game in the future?
"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.

Final: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39

December, 3, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- The first Big Ten championship game was an exciting, memorable event. Especially for Wisconsin fans.

Despite getting outgained and often outplayed by Michigan State, the Badgers pulled out a 42-39 win to avenge an earlier loss this season and clinch a bid to the Rose Bowl for the second straight season.

Two key plays made the difference.

The Badgers faced a fourth and seven with 4:44 left, and quarterback Russell Wilson was under heavy pressure when he chucked it downfield to a well-covered Jeff Duckworth, just hoping something good would happen. It did, in the form of a 36-yard completion that might have been karmic payback for the Hail Mary on Oct. 22.

Montee Ball would go in for the touchdown -- his 38th on the year, one behind Barry Sanders' record -- and Wisconsin converted the two-point play as Wilson again scrambled before finding Jacob Pedersen in the end zone for an improbable 42-39 lead.

Michigan State went three and out and punted, then forced a Wisconsin punt with fewer than two minutes to go. But Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into the punter, giving the Badgers a first down and effectively ending the game in heartbreaking fashion for the Spartans, whose Rose Bowl drought will now head into its 25th year.

Much, much more to come on this crazy game after postgame interviews ...

3Q update: Spartans still in command

December, 3, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- We've got another good one brewing between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin here at Lucas Oil Stadium, where Michigan State leads 36-28 after three quarters of play. The offenses have slowed down a bit, but Michigan State hit on a huge play at the end of the quarter to regain its 8-point advantage.

Some notes:
  • Kirk Cousins is having another huge performance against Wisconsin. The Spartans senior quarterback has completed 21 of 25 pass attempts for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Aside from the pick, Cousins has been brilliant, continuing his surge from November.
  • Jared Abbrederis has been Russell Wilson's favorite target for much of the season, but Abbrederis had no catches and wasn't targeted at all in the first half. Wisconsin needed to get No. 4 involved and delivered as Wilson evaded a face-mask-tugging Johnny Adams and found Abbrederis wide open for a 42-yard touchdown on the Badgers' opening drive of the second half.
  • It has been a struggle for Wilson, who still doesn't have 100 yards passing. He's having trouble throwing over the Michigan State defensive line and caught a deflected pass for his second reception of the game late in the quarter.
  • After taking several risks in the first half, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio passed up a fourth-and-3 situation from the Wisconsin 35-yard line and instead took a delay-of-game penalty. The decision looked a bit questionable, but Mike Sadler pinned the Badgers at their own 1-yard line.
  • Wisconsin's offensive game plan has been a bit puzzling since the first quarter. The Badgers haven't really emphasized the run with Montee Ball, who had 105 rush yards in the first quarter but just 10 since. Also, tight end Jacob Pedersen has been a nonfactor, while Wilson continues to look for Toon, being covered by one of the league's top cornerbacks in Adams.
  • Receiver/returner Keshawn Martin was one of my players to watch for Michigan State, and he has been a huge part of the game plan. Michigan State has hurt Wisconsin with swing passes and laterals to Martin, who has nine catches for 115 yards and four rushes for 22 yards. Martin has tortured Wisconsin throughout his career and looks to be having another big night against the Badgers.
  • Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen has had an outstanding game with three sacks. Other big contributors for the Spartans defense include linebacker Chris Norman, safety Trenton Robinson, defensive end William Gholston and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
  • Wisconsin fans did the "Jump Around" here at Lucas Oil at the end of the quarter.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Quick halftime analysis from a wildly entertaining first 30 minutes at the inaugural Big Ten championship game:

Turning point: On the first play of the second quarter, Michigan State went for it on fourth down and 1 from the Wisconsin 30. Quarterback Kirk Cousins faked a pitch and rolled out, finding a wide-open B.J. Cunningham for a touchdown to make it 21-14. That was the start of 22 consecutive points for the Spartans, who also outscored the Badgers 23-0 in the second quarter of their Oct. 22 win.

Stat of the half: Wisconsin had 165 total yards and three touchdowns after its first three drives in the first quarter. The rest of the way, the Badgers had minus-4 yards and no first downs as Michigan State made excellent defensive adjustments and got pressure on quarterback Russell Wilson. In fact, Wilson has more receiving yards in the half (32, on a trick play) than he does passing yards (30).

Best player in the half: While Wilson got far more attention this year, Cousins outplayed him in the first meeting this season and is doing so again. The senior quarterback is 15-of-17 for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the half, though he did throw an interception. Le'Veon Bell (10 rushes for 84 yards) and Keshawn Martin (103 total yards) have give the Spartans a big lift as well.

What Wisconsin needs to do: Re-establish the running game. Montee Ball had 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter. He had only three carries for 2 yards in the second quarter. Everything Wisconsin does is based on the running game, and without it, the Badgers don't have much chance. Oh, and tackling better would be nice, too.

What Michigan State needs to do: Keep the pedal down. The Spartans' offenses stalled in the second half of the first meeting this season, allowing Wisconsin to get back in it. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar is calling an excellent game and he needs to remember to stick to an effective running game. On defense, keep pressuring Wilson, who is clearly affected by the pass rush so far.
INDIANAPOLIS -- So much for the Big Ten championship game being a defense-driven contest.

Both offenses are moving the football very well so far tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium. A Michigan State turnover has allowed Wisconsin to take a 21-7 lead against the Spartans.

Some notes from the first quarter:
  • Much like in East Lansing on Oct. 22, Wisconsin opened the game with an impressive touchdown drive. The Badgers marched 71 yards in nine plays behind Montee Ball's running, play-action passes and excellent blocking from the offensive line. They went 80 yards in 11 plays in the previous contest against Michigan State.
  • Ball is making a major statement so far tonight that he deserves serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy and other national awards. The Badgers junior already has 105 rush yards and two touchdowns -- moving him three shy of Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record of 39 -- on 13 carries. Michigan State entered the game ranked 11th nationally in rush defense, allowing only 102.5 yards per game. It's about time Ball started to get noticed outside the Big Ten footprint.
  • Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is showing off his creativity so far. In addition to the steady diet of well-designed runs, Wisconsin set up its second touchdown on a halfback pass from Ball to quarterback Russell Wilson, who caught the ball in stride for a 32-yard gain. The Badgers have had Michigan State's defense off balance from the start.
  • You have to like the way Michigan State came out to establish the run first. The Spartans ran five times on a six-play, 59-yard scoring drive and once again were effective running from the shotgun formation, which they featured often down the stretch. The power-speed combination of Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker seems to be clicking.
  • Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins also looks sharp so far, completing his first three pass attempts.
INDIANAPOLIS --A couple of quick notes from pregame warm-ups:
  • Walking around this city Friday and earlier Saturday, it seemed like there were more Michigan State fans here than Wisconsin backers. The green gang appears to have an advantage in the stands, though fans are still filing in. The Spartans' supporters were loud during warm-ups, with many waving white towels. Really interested to see how full Lucas Oil Stadium gets for this one.
  • Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wasn't kidding on Friday when he said his team might watch "Home Alone" the night before the game. The players indeed viewed the adventures of a precocious Macaulay Culkin.
  • Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema suggested Friday that Travis Frederick would start at center even if Peter Konz looked healthy in practice. Well, Frederick was snapping to Russell Wilson in the pregame warm-ups, while Konz was working with third-string quarterback. Konz will likely play only in an emergency situation.
  • For what it's worth, it's 49 degrees in Chicago at kickoff, though there's a 90-percent chance of rain. I'm OK with being indoors.

It's game day at Lucas Oil Stadium

December, 3, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- Greetings from the inaugural Big Ten championship game, where No. 13 Michigan State will take on No. 15 Wisconsin for the right to face Oregon in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

It has been a fun two days here in Naptown, as fans of both teams and several others from the league have descended on the downtown area. Colleague Brian Bennett and I have encountered more Michigan State fans than Wisconsin fans, but both squads should be well represented in the stands. How many empty seats there are tonight should be a story as the secondary ticket market for the game has been soft.

We're indoors tonight, so weather won't be a factor.

Fortunately, the action on the field should be entertaining -- certainly better than what the Indianapolis Colts have done this season. Both Wisconsin and Michigan State are hot, having gone 4-0 in November after stumbling in Oct. 30 road games. Michigan State played the much cleaner ballgame in the teams' first meeting, committing no penalties, and the Spartans will need another disciplined effort tonight as they can't rely on Wisconsin to make as many mistakes as it did Oct. 22.

Both teams are relatively healthy. Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard (ankle) will return to the starting lineup opposite Johnny Adams. Wisconsin likely will be without starting center Peter Konz (ankle) for the third consecutive game, and Travis Frederick is expected to start in his place.

Two players to watch for each team:

Michigan State: receiver/return man Keshawn Martin, who has killed Wisconsin the past two seasons, and defensive end William Gholston, who was suspended for the teams' first meeting.

Wisconsin: running back Montee Ball, who had a huge month of November, and linebacker Chris Borland, who also finished strong and leads the team with 16.5 tackles for loss.

Should be a good one tonight. In case you missed our championship week coverage, check it out.

Much more to come from Lucas Oil.

Video: Michigan State-Wisconsin preview

December, 3, 2011

Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg preview the Michigan State-Wisconsin game from Lucas Oil Stadium.