Coming into the game completing 76 percent of his passes, Tolzien completed only 11 of 25 for 127 yards and a TD pass. Like any quarterback, he took the responsibility for the problems in the passing game and his offense only converting 3 of 11 third downs. Because of that, Wisconsin only held the ball for 23 minutes, 36 seconds, the first time it had a lower time TOP than its opponent.
Tolzien will have better days, but this will be one that will bother him for the rest of his football career.
Has Wisconsin mismanaged John Clay, not getting him enough carries during the non-conference season to toughen him up for the conference slate? It's a question that has some weight to it, although it's understandable that the coaches wanted to keep him fresh for the Big Ten.
Clay had 33 yards on his first four carries, including runs of 18 and 12 yards, but hobbled off the field near the end of the first quarter after getting hit on his left ankle. He seemed to lose his explosiveness after that and finished with 17 carries for 80 yards, seeing his streak of 100-yard rushing games – longest in the nation – end at 10 and any realistic shot at his name being etched on the Heisman Trophy.
Clay was tentative at times, including fumbling a handoff on third-and-one when he saw Greg Jones coming. A confident Clay wouldn't have let that bother him, and it might cost him his starting job.
Freshman James White, who picked Wisconsin over Michigan State in December, had a productive 10 carries for 98 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, White has 374 yards on 44 carries (8.5 per rush) and is tied for the team lead with six touchdowns, all coming in his last 19 carries.
"I thought he did a good job all day," UW Coach Bret Bielema said.
White's two scores were him making something out of nothing. He bounced an inside run outside to avoid the blitz and went untouched for an 18-yard score. His 34-yard score in the third was a near carbon copy, bouncing to the outside after the middle was stuffed and diving over the end line. With the Gophers coming to town, expect White's carries to increase.
Wide open on third-and-six on UW's first drive while Tolzien calmly stayed in the pocket with All-American linebacker Greg Jones barreled in on him, and Nick Toon simply dropped the ball. Of course, a holding call would have whipped out the play, but it was foreshadowing of things to come. Toon's only catch came in the fourth quarter for 28 yards, and he committed a dumb 15-yard block-in-the-back penalty to wipe out great starting field position for UW.
"I know there were a couple of uncharacteristic drops for Nick," Bielema said. "Nobody will feel worse about that (than) him."
Jacob Pedersen has solidified himself as the team's number two tight end opposite Kendricks, leading the Badgers with 38 receiving yards. Pedersen made a nice 26-yard over-the-shoulder catch on third-and-four for a 26-yard gain, setting up White's first score. His second grab resulted in him muscling into the end zone to cut the MSU lead to three, a play that was set up by great protection, a rarity on Saturday.
Too bad J.J. Watt's teammates didn't match his intensity. Watt was the only real playmaker in the front seven, finishing with a career-high 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a pass breakup and his first sack of the season. Watt even kept points off the board, teaming up with safety Jay Valai to stop Le'Veon Bell on fourth-and-1 from the MSU 1.
Jordan Kohout had seven tackles and a quarterback hurry while Louis Nzegwu added five tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry, but the story are the third downs. MSU's offense ranked last in third-down conversions at 31.8 percent and converted nine of 18 third downs. That allowed the Spartans, last in the Big Ten in time of possession, to hold the ball for 36 minutes, 24 seconds and roll up a 444-292 edge in total yards.
"Third down going into this game was going to be a critical, critical point ... and also special teams," Bielema said.
Yes Bret, we'll get to that later. As for third down, the blame for that equally goes around.
Grade: J.J. Watt: A. The rest: D
With Wisconsin playing poorly and cutting the deficit to 20-17, the air was let out of the balloon when Mike Taylor (eight tackles) got sucked up to the line of scrimmage on a play-action pass, disregarding tight end Charlie Gantt and watched the play go for 28 yards. That play led to a play-action touchdown pass from the two where Blake Sorensen (seven tackles) went to the line of scrimmage to stop the run and Taylor and Aaron Henry (six tackles) stood there as Gantt stayed wide open.
The linebackers had a chance to earn redemption with 10:53 left after the offense again cut the lead to three, but the Spartans converted three third downs, including ones from 9 and 11 yards to go. That third-and-11 play was a screen that went for 35 yards. That set up another fourth-and-goal at the 1 and another play-action fake that was the dagger.
This was the first game where the Badgers would really be tested without Chris Borland. It showed and the results were not pretty. Allowing 17 plays to go for over 10 yards is embarrassing, the group didn't step up when they needed it the most, like the 15 play, 84-yard scoring that chewed up 7 minutes, 57 seconds.
Niles Brinkley showed great positioning against Mark Dell on MSU's first drive, drawing a 15-yard pass interference, and showed some grit on his pass defense against Keith Nichol in the second, stripping out the football that set up a UW field goal and a 10-3 lead. Despite having a career-high eight tackles (all solos), Brinkley did have a missed tackle when he over pursued on a fourth-and-one, leading to a 23-yard gain and a score before halftime. Of course, the whole defense was over anxious so, once again, the blame gets passed around.
On the critical four-and-one touchdown in the final minutes for Michigan State, Brinkley stopped to look in the backfield, losing his assignment (B.J. Cunningham) and costing the Badgers a potential victory.
Antonio Fenelus helped keep at least three points off the scoreboard when he intercepted Kirk Cousins inside the 20 and watched the offense turn it into seven points on White's first TD. Devin Smith had great focus to make a diving interception on a tip pass from Watt.
Mark Dell's 34-yard reception on third down on MSU's second series bailed Sparty out of the shadow of its own goal line. Dell had 28 yards after the catch on that play, an example of the big plays given up by the secondary that did in UW.
Brad Nortman kicked into the wind on his first punt, which only went for 35 yards. He had no excuses for his next two.
The Badgers allowed a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown by Keshawn Martin in the second quarter, following a line-drive punt by Nortman. That led to a 20-10 halftime deficit. Nortman's punt was terrible considering the dynamic person he was kicking to. When Martin caught the ball at the 26, the closest Badger in front of him was at the 42-yard line. Of course, a missed tackle led to the big run, as well.
With the wind still behind him, Nortman proceeded to shank a pooch punt that went a total of 14 yards.
Devin Smith's 15-yard facemask penalty on the kickoff return following Phil Welch's 49-yarder was unnecessary and gave MSU great field position.
"We had it bottled up. It was huge," Bielema said of Smith's penalty. ""It's a good indicator that every play matters."
Welch split the uprights on his attempt in the second and with the wind behind him, could have made it from 65, the only good thing UW did on that unit all day.