- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- As Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins rolled out for the final play of regulation in Saturday night's game against No. 6 Wisconsin, he knew he had to buy enough time to make sure his receivers reached the end zone. Then Cousins had to throw the ball far enough for it to actually reach the goal line.
Spartans receiver B.J. Cunningham ran down the field and turned to face Cousins just as he released the pass. Cunningham's responsibility was an important one: Once the ball reached the end zone, he was supposed to jump and tip the ball into the air.
Michigan State senior Keith Nichol, who lost the starting quarterback job to Cousins three years ago, had perhaps the most critical job of all. As a trailing receiver, Nichol was supposed to catch a deflection and get into the end zone for a winning touchdown.
The Spartans run the play over and over again in practice every Thursday. To avoid injuries like a sprained ankle, Michigan State's offense runs the play against nothing but air.
"Usually, when no one is covering us, we're pretty good," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said.
Even with everything on the line on Saturday night, the play known as "Rocket" worked again, as Cousins threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Nichol on the final play of the No. 16 Spartans' stunning 37-31 upset of the Badgers in front of a sold-out crowd of 76,405 fans at Spartan Stadium.
Game officials initially ruled that a trio of Wisconsin defenders stopped Nichol short of the goal line as time expired. But replay officials overturned the call on the field, giving Michigan State an improbable victory.
"I swear I thought I got the ball across," Nichol said. "I knew once they went to review it that it was going to be a touchdown. I could just feel it. I went across the line with the ball for a split-second. There was no way I could be denied. I just knew [it was a touchdown] in my gut."
The loss was a devastating defeat for the Badgers, who are all but eliminated from the BCS national championship race. Wisconsin's loss means the Big Ten will probably go through another season without one of its teams playing for a BCS national title, depending on how things shake out over the last six weeks of the regular season.
"This will sting and they will carry this memory with them for the rest of their life -- and it's going to be difficult," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
After rolling through its first six games with relative ease, Wisconsin took an early 14-0 lead over Michigan State. But then Wisconsin imploded in the second quarter, as the Spartans recorded a safety, blocked a field goal and scored a touchdown off a blocked punt to take a 23-14 lead at the half.
But after falling behind 31-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Badgers came storming back. Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw two interceptions and was sacked three times, ran for a 22-yard touchdown to make it 31-24. Then Wilson threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to tailback Montee Ball to tie the score at 31 with 1:26 to play.
"I thought we could still come back," Wilson said. "We had to just keep fighting."
Michigan State got the ball back at its 22-yard line with 1:15 to go, setting up a furious finish. After picking up a first down with just over a minute left, the Spartans narrowly avoided disaster. Cousins rolled to his left to throw, but was hit from behind by Badgers defensive end Brandon Kelly, forcing the ball loose. Michigan State guard Joel Foreman dove for the ball, but couldn't recover it. Fortunately for the Spartans, left tackle Dan France recovered at his team's 24.
With the Spartans facing second-and-20 from there, Bielema called a timeout with 42 seconds to play. After Michigan State gained 12 yards on Cunningham's catch to make it third-and-8 at its 36, Bielema called another timeout with 30 seconds left.
Instead of allowing Michigan State to run the clock out, Bielema said he wanted to give his team a chance to try to block a punt to get the ball back in field-goal range.
"We wanted to get the ball back," Bielema said. "We were right there on a punt return that we thought had a chance to break and possibly a punt block. If we got the ball back with less than 30 seconds, then we were going to go with the block."
Instead, Michigan State came out of the timeout and picked up a first down when Cousins flipped a shovel pass to receiver Keshawn Martin, who ran for 11 yards to the State 47 with 24 seconds left.
On the next play, Cousins completed a 9-yard pass to tailback Le'Veon Bell. Dantonio called a timeout to stop the clock with 10 seconds to go.
On second-and-1, Cousins fired an incomplete pass to tight end Brian Linthicum down the left sideline, stopping the clock with four seconds left.
"With 10 seconds to go, we still had a shot," Dantonio said. "With four seconds, I guess we still had a shot. You always have a shot. You just keep playing."
That's what the Spartans did on the final play. After Cousins took the snap, Bell sealed off a defensive end to give him enough time to roll out and fire a pass to the end zone. Cunningham said he mistimed his jump in the end zone as the ball sailed toward him. But so did Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis, who went into the game to play safety.
"I was right behind him," Cunningham said. "It went right through his hands. He should have caught it. It bounced off my face mask and went right into Keith's hands."
Nichol, a native of Lowell, Mich., who transferred to Michigan State from Oklahoma after he lost the Sooners' quarterback job to Sam Bradford, caught the deflected ball just inside the 1-yard line. Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor and cornerback Antonio Fenelus immediately tackled Nichol. Taylor grabbed his right arm and tried to keep him from crossing the goal line.
"I knew once I caught it my stride was going to make it a touchdown," Nichol said.
Replay officials had to review the play first. After a couple of minutes, Nichol heard the word he'd been waiting to hear: touchdown.
"I was like, 'There's no way I didn't get in on that,'" Nichol said. "I knew I got in. I knew I wasn't going to be denied, not in a big moment like that."
It was Nichol's only catch of the game.
"I don't think you could write a better story," Cousins said. "[Nichol] worked so hard and he's so selfless. It was never about him."
After officials ruled the play a touchdown, Cunningham jumped on Nichol's back on the sideline. Cousins ran to a section of stands in Spartan Stadium, and jumped into the front row with his parents, siblings, grandmother and girlfriend.
"We knew we had a chance," Cousins said. "There's always a chance. We work on it every Thursday, we work on it over and over. We executed it and the ball bounced our way, obviously. There's a little bit of luck that plays into it, but we executed it."
And now the Spartans have a chance to do something that not many people thought they'd do at the start of the season. At 6-1 overall, Michigan State has a one-game lead over Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska in the loss column of the Big Ten's Legends Division. The Spartans have defeated Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive games and play at No. 13 Nebraska next week.
With a couple of more wins, they'll punch their tickets to the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3. The winner will probably earn a trip to the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio on Jan. 2.
"We said if we can get through October, look out," Cousins said.
After what happened Saturday night, everyone will start taking notice of the Spartans.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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