Badgers turn tables on Spartans, win Big Ten
INDIANAPOLIS – This time there was no “Hail Mary” or suspenseful replay review, but there was another gut-wrenching decisive play and another crazy finish.
Maybe that’s how games are going to be in the new-look Big Ten.
But in a dramatic role reversal Saturday night, it was Michigan State left stunned and heartbroken as Wisconsin celebrated a wild 42-39 victory in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. As a result, the Badgers are making a second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.
“To win the first-ever Big Ten championship game is pretty awesome,” Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson said. “A hundred years from now people will look back and say, ‘Who won that game? Who won the first-ever game?’ And it’s Wisconsin.”
They should ask how the Badgers pulled it off.
Wilson escaped pressure to complete a 36-yard pass to Jeff Duckworth on fourth down to set up Montee Ball’s go-ahead touchdown run with 3:45 left. But the lead wasn’t secure until Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis committed a running-into-the-punter penalty that nullified a return that would’ve put the Spartans inside the Badgers’ 5-yard line in the final minutes.
And there it is. The first championship game of the new-look Big Ten was a WAC-like score-fest decided on a terrible special teams gaffe.
[Recap: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39]
Woody would be irate.
Bo would, too.
Hayes and Schembechler would have bristled at the mere thought that the rough-and-rugged Big Ten would decide its football champion in a post-Thanksgiving offensive shootout settled by a bonehead special teams play.
What’s next? Replacing the Old Oaken Bucket with a plastic one? Retiring Paul Bunyan’s axe in favor a chain saw?
That’s the circle of life in today’s “progressive” world of college football, when the Big Ten has 12 members, the Big 12 has 10 and the Big East is expanding west of the Mississippi because teams now jump around from conference to conference like Wisconsin’s student section.
While one tradition has faded away (the Big Ten season ending before Thanksgiving), another was born within the climate-controlled walls of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Of course, new traditions aren’t always eagerly embraced. On Saturday morning, tickets were available on StubHub for just $13. But the 64,152 in attendance got a bargain.
Easily the best of the weekend’s six conference championship games, the rematch was almost as close as the Oct. 22 clash, which Michigan State won on a final-play “Hail Mary.”
That was the first of two games the Badgers lost on late passes. The next week, they fell to Ohio State on a 40-yard pass with 20 seconds remaining. Basically, Wisconsin is 21 seconds away from being unbeaten and playing for the national championship, a fact that still stings.
“It was very devastating after suffering the two losses,” Badgers safety Aaron Henry said. “I think the team we had, we were thinking national championship, national title game. For us to lose the way we did in those two games, it was definitely devastating.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, it appeared the Badgers were headed for another devastating loss.
Behind the passing of Kirk Cousins, who threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns to B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State appeared to be in control. But with just over eight minutes to play, Wisconsin’s defense made a rare stand and forced the Spartans to settle for a 25-yard field goal and a 39-34 lead.
Wisconsin then moved to Michigan State’s 43 and faced a fourth-and-6. That’s when Wilson stepped away from the rush and lofted a rainbow downfield to Duckworth, who made an excellent adjustment on the ball and wrestled it away from two Michigan State defenders at the Spartans’ 7.
Ball then scored his 38th touchdown of the season, and Wilson passed to Jacob Pedersen for the two-point conversion and a three-point lead. Wisconsin forced Michigan State into a punt on its ensuing series, but after Ball was held to 6 yards on three carries, the Spartans figured to get another chance with just under two minutes remaining.
But Lewis, playing in his home town, collided with punter Brad Nortman to draw the flag that nullified Keshawn Martin’s return to the Badgers’ 5.
“No one play lost this football game,” Cousins said. “We don’t feel like Isaiah did anything wrong.”
Cousins was right. Michigan State could point to settling for the field goal in the fourth quarter, or failing to pick up a first down on a possession before the punt, or failing to make a play on Wilson’s pivotal fourth-down pass as reasons for the loss.
In the end, the teams combined for 81 points and 816 yards. Ball rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns. Wilson passed for three scores. Of Cousins’ three touchdown passes, one covered 30 and another went 44 yards.
All that offense and no defense? Somewhere, Woody and Bo must be irate.
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