- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Most of Michigan State's defining moments in recent years have come against the Wisconsin Badgers.
In 2010, the Spartans rallied to beat No. 11 Wisconsin 34-24 in an emotional game played without head coach Mark Dantonio, who couldn't attend because of health reasons. Michigan State went on to win a team-record 11 games and claim a share of the Big Ten title.
The Spartans again rallied to beat a higher-rated Wisconsin squad last season in East Lansing, winning on a 44-yard Hail Mary pass called "Rocket" as time expired. The dramatic win propelled Michigan State to a Legends Division title and a spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game, where it faced, surprise, surprise, Wisconsin. The Spartans once again had a chance to rally for the win -- and their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season -- but a penalty nullified a long punt return by Keshawn Martin, allowing Wisconsin to run out the clock.
"It not only represented a big blow to the heart of Michigan State, but it represents what's been going on this year," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com. "The last play, the last drive, we needed to make a play. We didn't during that game, and we haven't been able to do that this year."
Wisconsin enters Saturday's matchup on the verge of punching its ticket for a return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. Michigan State, meanwhile, stumbles into Camp Randall Stadium at 4-4, having lost its three Big Ten games by a total of six points. A Big Ten title is pretty much out of the question, and Michigan State could struggle to get bowl-eligible, as its last four opponents are a combined 21-9 on the season.
Given the recent history of the MSU-Wisconsin series -- the teams' past six games have been decided by 10 points or fewer -- the Spartans could see themselves in another white-knuckler in Madison. The Wisconsin contest provides yet another defining moment for Michigan State, which Norman says helps the team refuel after last week's 12-10 loss to chief rival Michigan.
"Wisconsin has almost been like a rival to us for the past few years," Norman said. "Every time we play them, it's been close. We got a big win against them last year, and they got a really big win against us last year, which took us away from going to the Rose Bowl. So we have a score to settle when we play a team like Wisconsin.
"We have every reason in the world to be emotional."
Norman noted that this season feels a lot like 2009, when Michigan State lost five games by eight points or fewer, including a 38-30 setback in Madison. The Spartans improved markedly in the clutch the next two seasons, but they've come up short over and over this fall. Much of the criticism has been directed toward an offense that ranks 110th in scoring (19.6 ppg) and 86th in total yards (370.8 ypg).
The defense, from a statistical standpoint, has met the lofty expectations, ranking in the top 16 nationally in points allowed, total defense, rush defense and pass defense. For the past two weeks Dantonio has talked about the importance of not dividing the offense and defense, saying Tuesday, "You want to make sure this remains a team, that we're cohesive as a group, we don't split, we don't divide. That's the most important thing about a football team. That's more important than winning and losing."
Norman notes that the team's issues go beyond the offense. Although the defense has been stingy, its highlight reel isn't very long -- Michigan State ranks last in the Big Ten and 117 nationally in sacks (6), and has generated just 11 takeaways (tied for 71st nationally).
"On defense, we haven't closed out games and got the ball back when we needed to, and on special teams we've had some issues," he said. "It's a team issue."
Dantonio talked this week about how the close losses have tested his team and have provided an opportunity for growth. Perhaps no better opportunity arrives Saturday, as Michigan State tries to snap Wisconsin's 21-game home win streak and win in Madison for the first time since 2001.
"We still want to go to a bowl game," Norman said. "There's a lot of things we still need to play for. We just need to play for Spartan pride and get a win against a big opponent like Wisconsin, in a hard environment like Camp Randall Stadium. That will do a lot for our momentum and our spirits.
"It will do wonders for the team."
4hTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney