With No. 11 Wisconsin (4-1) losing 34-24 at the hands of No. 24 Michigan State (5-0) in Spartan Stadium Saturday night, the tale of the game is shockingly simple; The Badgers were bested by the superior team.
• Trailing by three points with 10:40 left in the game, UW gave up a 15 play drive that spanned 84 yards and ate 7:57 off the clock before eventually resulting in a fourth down touchdown pass. During the drive, UW gave up third down conversions of nine, 11 and five yards. Three opportunities to get off the field and get the ball back to a Badger offense that was clicking with momentum, and three opportunities Michigan State got the better of.
• The Badgers, to their credit, finished the game with a plus-three turnover margin. The defense forced three in the first half — resulting in ten UW points — and the offense never coughed up the ball. Of course, that is all relegated to statistical noise if a team cannot win with a +3 turnover differential.
• Wisconsin got yet another two touchdowns from true freshman James White, a playmaker at running back Badger fans haven't seen the like of since Brian Calhoun. With Scott Tolzien, Lance Kendricks and John Clay all held well in check, however, White's emergence is relegated to statistical noise in the wake of the loss.
When plays needed to be made, it was Michigan State cashing in. At this point in the season, the Spartans are simply a better team than the Badgers.
"They got beat by a team today that played better then they did," Bielema told his players after the game.
"If we execute on critical downs, the game is not in the loss column."
The first blemish of the game for Wisconsin came shortly after the Badgers had taken a 10-6 lead. Coming off their own made field goal, MSU started to turn the tide by holding UW to a three-and-out. Punter Brad Nortman got off a solid looking punt on fourth down, but it was called back after a false start from tight end Jacob Pedersen.
The penalty proved to be a killer. Nortman's second attempt did not go well.
Wisconsin's junior punter got off a line drive 46-yard boot, that unofficially had less then three seconds of hang time, giving Spartans returner Keshawn Martin plenty of space in front to return.
Martin took advantage, bursting through a huge hole in the middle of the coverage before streaking down the sideline to give MSU a 13-10 lead. Michigan State tacked on one more field goal before the half ended, giving them a run of 17 unanswered points to end the first two quarters.
"Just mishit it," Nortman said. "I was going with the wind that time and I tried to kick it to hard. It didn't do what I wanted to and it was too low for a returner like that and he made us pay."
Wisconsin was able to briefly rally in the second half behind the superb play of White.
Although he ran the ball just ten times, White accumulated 98 total yards, including touchdown runs of 34 and 16 yards. On the 34-yard gallop, White started left on the play, had the vision and quickness to bounce back right before outracing all defenders to the pylon.
Although there was still 25 minutes left of game action, White would touch the ball just four more times.
"I thought he did a good job all day," Bielema said. "I thought we had some big hits that he took advantage of … I thought he did a nice changeup for us."
The Badgers may have lost the game on Michigan State's final touchdown drive, failing to get off the field on four different opportunities, but it was a game-long theme for UW.
The Spartans converted 9-of-18 third downs and held the ball for 36:24 minutes of the game. Michigan State only had to punt once.
"Oh my gosh man, those third down stops were crucial," Henry said. "They pretty much bore down to them and us. Were we going to get off the field and were we going to give our offense a chance to get back on the field. And they made more plays then we did. That is pretty much what it bore down to."
Wisconsin on the other hand, converted on just 3-of-11 third downs with the passing game being the primary culprit.
Coming into the game with a completion percentage over 70 percent, quarterback Scott Tolzien connected on only 11-of-25 throws for 127 yard . Lance Kendricks led the team with three catches, but only for 17 yards after breaking the century mark in the previous two games.
There were a handful of facets to blame — dropped passes, a strong pass rush and simple misses to name a few.
"My completion percentage was way down there and we just couldn't get in a rhythm in the passing game," Tolzien said. "It is frustrating for me, because we pride ourselves on being efficient in the passing game. No one is pleased with how we played today."
Coming into the game, many stories revolved around the theme of reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year running back John Clay versus former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones.
Suffice to say, Jones won.
Clay was held out of the end zone and had his 10-game 100-yard rushing streak snapped, finishing with 80 yards on 17 carries. Jones led the Spartans with eight tackles, including three for a loss.
"For us to move forward, what we need to be able to do is run the ball effectively against good runs defenses," Bielema said. "This is one of them and we had mixed results."