Big Ten: Badgers-Sparty-102211

Video: MSU safety Trenton Robinson

October, 23, 2011

Adam Rittenberg talks to Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson about the Spartans’ upset of Wisconsin.

Video: Michigan State WR Keith Nichol

October, 23, 2011

Adam Rittenberg talks to Keith Nichol about his big catch to lift Michigan State over Wisconsin.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins scanned the team's 2011 schedule, one stretch of games practically glared back at him.

One month of games, in fact.

October brought a gauntlet of games that would make even the most confident teams shudder.

Oct. 1: at Ohio State
Oct. 15: Michigan
Oct. 22: Wisconsin
Oct. 29: at Nebraska

The four-pack would test Michigan State emotionally, physically and psychologically. It included a homecoming of sorts (25 Spartans are from Ohio), a genuine homecoming against a national-title favorite (Wisconsin), the biggest game of every Michigan State season (Michigan) and a game with major Legends division-title implications (Nebraska).

"Our schedule was going to be as challenging as anybody's," Cousins said. "We said, if we can get through October, look out."

The Spartans are three-fourths of the way through one of the toughest months for any team in recent Big Ten history. They are 3-0, in control of their fate in the Legends division and displaying incredible poise every time they take the field.

The Big Ten's drama kings were at it again Saturday night against No. 6 Wisconsin, falling behind early, surging ahead, losing a 14-point lead in the final minutes and then producing the play of the year in college football. Again.

Forget "Little Giants" or "Mousetrap." A play called "Rocket" tops them all.

When Keith Nichol came down with Cousins' 44-yard deflected Hail Mary pass and stretched across the goal line with no time left, lifting his team to a 37-31 victory over Wisconsin, Michigan State sent a message to the rest of the Big Ten.

Look out. The Spartans are coming.

"That's why you play to the end of the game," coach Mark Dantonio said.

October used to be the month where Michigan State fell apart, where it let down its fans after teasing them with strong September starts. But a program that used to be allergic to poise has displayed it more than any Big Ten team in the past year and a half.

In 2010, Michigan State persevered despite losing Dantonio for several weeks as he recovered from a heart attack. The challenges this season all have been on the field, and time after time, the Spartans have answered the bell.

[+] Enlarge
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Keith Nichol celebrates after hauling in the winning touchdown.
The latest concern stemmed from an emotion-charged win against archrival Michigan, a game that featured 13 Michigan State penalties, including a personal foul on William Gholston that resulted in the Big Ten suspending the sophomore defensive end for Saturday's game. Some branded Michigan State as a dirty team, especially after reading defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's comment about "60 minutes of unecessary roughness."

Dantonio felt his program was "under attack" during the week. Would all the discipline questions cause the Spartans to play more tentative or more reckless against Wisconsin?

Although Dantonio didn't suspend Gholston and praised the school's administration for sticking by his player, he challenged the team before Saturday night's game.

"I talked about having a perfect storm tonight," he said. "I said, 'No penalties.' And it's amazing we had zero penalties."

Michigan State avoided the flags and maintained its defensive aggressiveness, recording three sacks and five quarterback hurries against Wisconsin star Russell Wilson. The defense triggered the Spartans' comeback, as pressure from Denicos Allen forced Wilson to commit intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety.

"We know we're not a dirty team," said safety Trenton Robinson, who recorded an interception and a sack. "Sometimes, personal fouls and stuff happens. Around the country, every team has personal fouls. But for someone to be like, 'That's the dirtiest team in football,' that doesn't make any sense. ... We pushed through."

Michigan State held Wisconsin to 19 points below its season average. The Badgers had beaten each of their first six opponents by 31 points or more.

Yet if there was a downside to Wisconsin's dominant run since the middle of last season, it was that Bret Bielema's squad hadn't experienced many crunch-time situations. Since a 31-30 victory at Iowa, Wisconsin had won 10 games by 20 points or more. The team's only close contest, in the Rose Bowl against TCU, ended with a 21-19 loss.

While Wisconsin fought back courageously Saturday night, scoring two touchdowns in the final 8:10 to tie the game at 31-31, the Badgers had their issues in the final minute. They couldn't recover a Cousins fumble that would have set them up for a game-winning field-goal try. They allowed Michigan State to convert two third-and-longs. Bielema used timeouts when going to overtime with momentum might have been the smarter play.

And they couldn't bat down the ball at the end, leading to Nichol's crazy catch.

"We wanted to get the ball back," Bielema said. "... We were going for the win."

Wisconsin players applauded the strategy.

"I totally agree with him," running back Montee Ball said. "I would have done the same thing if I was in his position. You don't want to go into overtime if you don't have to."

Wisconsin dropped its fourth consecutive game here, and no loss was more heart-wrenching -- or surprising. Despite not playing a true road game, the Badgers came in as clear favorites, picked by just about everyone to win.

Robinson was particularly rankled by a comment that Michigan State would need "a miracle" to win on its home field.

"To laugh at us on TV and say it's going to take a miracle to win ... is just the ultimate disrespect," Robinson said.

Added receiver Keshawn Martin: "They didn't pick us. We picked us."

After the game, Cousins met Wilson and told the Wisconsin star, "You're a class act, and I think you guys will be there in December, and I just hope we're there with you."

"There" is Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. Cousins still considers Wisconsin the favorite, although that label could be applied to Michigan State.

But the gauntlet continues for the Spartans next week with what is in many ways a more important game at Nebraska. A win in Lincoln, and the Spartans survive October with a chance to do special things in December and January.

Can Michigan State summon the energy one more time?

"It's easy to get up when you win," Dantonio said, "because you believe something better is right around the corner for you. You think, 'OK, now what's next?' A lot of people talked about this stretch, playing Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, that stretch we had in October.

"Now we're 3-0. And we're going places."

Keith NicholAndrew Weber/US PresswireKeith Nichol pulls in the winning touchdown for Michigan State, a 44-yard Hail Mary as time expired.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Instant analysis from Spartan Stadium, where No. 16 Michigan State upset No. 6 Wisconsin 37-31 on a Hail Mary on the final play. WOW!

Let's take a look ...

How the game was won: Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins outplayed Heisman Trophy candidate Russell Wilson most of the night, and he saved his biggest play for the end. Lining up at Wisconsin's 44-yard line, Cousins heaved a Hail Mary to the end zone. The ball was deflected to wide receiver Keith Nichol, who inched across the goal line for the winner. The Play of the Year in college football lifted the Spartans, who had squandered a 14-point lead in the final nine minutes.

Turning point: After throwing his second interception, Wilson came alive in the closing minutes of regulation, leading scoring drives of 43 and 87 yards.

Player of the game: Cousins. Who else? The senior delivered his most impressive performance in one of the biggest games of his career, cementing himself in Spartans' lore. Cousins completed 22 of 31 passes for 290 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw the game-winning 44-yard touchdown to Nichol with no time remaining.

Stat of the game I: After drawing 13 penalties for 124 yards against archrival Michigan, Michigan State exhibited much better discipline in a game in which it had to. The Spartans avoided a penalty for the entire game while a normally disciplined Wisconsin team drew five flags.

Second guessing: After regaining momentum late in regulation, Wisconsin could have sent the game to overtime but used timeouts in the final minute to try and regain possession. Michigan State converted three third downs on the final possession, including the touchdown to Nichol.

What it means: The Big Ten won't be sending a team to the BCS title game for the fourth consecutive season. Wilson's Heisman hopes likely are finished. Wisconsin's early season dominance looks a bit different after the Badgers struggled in their first true road game. Michigan State is undoubtedly the team to beat in the Legends division, but next week's game at Nebraska is even more important for the Spartans than tonight's victory. These teams look like the class of the Big Ten -- along with Penn State -- and could reunite in the league championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis. We can only hope.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Some quick thoughts from a wild first half at Spartan Stadium, where Michigan State scored 23 unanswered points after finding itself in an early hole ...

Turning point: Wisconsin led 14-0 and had the ball late in the first quarter when Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson picked off a Russell Wilson pass intended for Nick Toon, who never turned around for the ball. Although the takeaway didn't directly lead to points, it changed field position and helped Michigan State record its safety. The Spartans grabbed momentum and never looked back.

Best player in the half: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins. The Spartans senior is outplaying the Heisman Trophy candidate on the other side so far tonight. Cousins completed 8 of 10 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown to B.J. Cunningham. Spartans linebacker Denicos Allen also deserves a mention for pressuring Wilson.

What Michigan State needs to do: Continue to challenge Wisconsin's defense down the field. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar called a terrific second quarter, and he's using big-play weapons like Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Defensively, the Spartans settled down late in the half, but must shore up the middle against Montee Ball, who has 68 yards on 13 carries. Michigan State has been spectacular on special teams and must continue to make plays in the kicking game.

What Wisconsin needs to do: Settle down, for starters. The Badgers melted down in the second quarter after a terrific start and must catch their breathe. Special-teams breakdowns have killed Bret Bielema's team, especially the blocked punt late in the half that Michigan State recovered in the end zone. Wilson needs to elevate his play, especially if Ball can't return after leaving in the second quarter. The defense must start pressuring Cousins, who has had a ton of time to throw downfield.

Wisconsin-Michigan State pregame

October, 22, 2011
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A few notes from warmups as we get set for No. 6 Wisconsin at No. 16 Michigan State.
  • Wisconsin top wide receiver Nick Toon went through warmups and didn't seem limited. Toon missed last week's game against Indiana with a left foot injury and had surgery on the foot during the offseason.
  • Badgers starting defensive tackle Patrick Butrym also warmed up but seemed to be favoring his left ankle, which he injured last week against Indiana. Butrym worked alongside fellow starter Ethan Hemer. Jordan Kohout likely would be the next man in at defensive tackle.
  • As expected, sophomore Denzel Drone worked as the starting defensive end in William Gholston's spot. Corey Freeman likely would be the next man in behind Drone.

Much more to come from Spartan Stadium. Don't forget to chat with us throughout the game.

Adam Rittenberg looks at third-down efficiency in tonight’s Wisconsin-Michigan State showdown.

It's game day at Spartan Stadium

October, 22, 2011
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Welcome to Sparta.

We've got a big one on tap tonight as No. 6 Wisconsin visits No. 16 Michigan State in a potential preview of the inaugural Big Ten championship game. Not surprisingly, there's a big-time atmosphere around the stadium as tailgaters are out in force. "College GameDay" had a great show earlier, and the main event kicks off just after 8 p.m. ET.

Wisconsin plays its first true road game of the season in place where it has not fared well in recent years. The Badgers have dropped three consecutive games here, including a 34-24 setback last fall that proved to be their only regular-season defeat. Michigan State, meanwhile, comes off of two emotional wins against Ohio State and archrival Michigan. Can the Spartans summon their energy one more time? A good sign: Michigan State has won the game following Michigan in each of the past three years.

To continue the trend, Michigan State must slow down the nation's top scoring offense without starting defensive end William Gholston, who is suspended for tonight's contest. Gholston leads the Spartans in tackles for loss (7.5) and will be missed on the edge. It's put more burden on star defensive tackle Jerel Worthy to control the line of scrimmage and slow down Wisconsin's running backs.

Michigan State also could have an edge on special teams. Remember that Keshawn Martin had a punt return touchdown against Wisconsin last year. Martin could be a difference-maker.

For Wisconsin, it's all about Russell Wilson. He came to Wisconsin to play in games like this one, and he can make a major statement both for himself in the Heisman Trophy race and for his team as a national title contender. Wilson's ability to convert third downs and keep Michigan State's defense off balance will be critical. The Badgers need a strong effort from their defensive front seven, which will have tackle Patrick Butrym, although he'll likely be limited.

I picked Wisconsin 30-24, and Lee Corso went with the Badgers in his 200th headgear selection this morning.

Will the Spartans prove us wrong? We'll soon find out.

Chat with me and my colleagues throughout the Wisconsin-Michigan State game. This is the place to be to get all our thoughts on the game.