Except for a couple fleeting moments against Nebraska, Wisconsin has been in control, in command and had flat out cruised through its first six games of the season. Scoring at will? Check. Dominating the competition? Check. Offensive balance with the run and pass? Check. Standout defensive effort? Check.
So when No.4 Wisconsin appeared to overcome road adversity, battling back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to forge a tie with No.15 Michigan State, it appeared it checked another thing off its list. Not so fast, my friend.
Even though the Badgers came charging back, too many missed opportunities on offense, too many missed assignments on defense and too many blunders on special teams all welled up in a shocking conclusion, a 44-yard Hail Mary catch that backup receiver Keith Nichol inched across the goal line, that cost Wisconsin a shot at an undefeated season, a national championship and redemption at Spartan Stadium after a 37-31 defeat.
"We can't play for the national championship, we just have to regroup," said linebacker Chris Borland. "We have to do everything we can to get to Indianapolis … It was terrible … It hurts."
Nothing went right for Wisconsin in the middle two quarters and the outlook seemed bleak after Michigan State (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) converted a third-and-11 and the ensuing two-point conversion, pushing the lead to 31-17 with 10:52 remaining.
Senior quarterback Russell Wilson was far from spectacular (14-of-21 for 223 yards, two interceptions) but the veteran led the Badgers (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) to touchdown drives on two of his final three possessions – the first being a 22-yard touchdown run that he created by pump faking the safety to bring Wisconsin within 31-24 and the second being a 2-yard pass to Montee Ball in the flat for his second touchdown to tie the game at 31.
"It was the best feeling ever," said Ball, who rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown and added 24 more in the passing game. "Seriously, to come back from that in an away game is big. It's huge. It really shows what we are capable of doing."
But following the script that has been written before at Spartan Stadium, the home team had one last breath in them. With its defense having forced three consecutive Michigan State three-and-outs, Wisconsin started burning its three timeouts in hopes of getting the ball back. After a sack on first down second-and-20, Wisconsin called timeout with 42 seconds left. After a 12-yard pass from Cousins, a Wisconsin timeout with 30 seconds left.
On third-and-8, an 11-yard shovel pass gave Michigan State a first down. With four seconds left, Wisconsin burned its last timeout to set up a ‘prevent' defense.
Head coach Bret Bielema said Wisconsin was supposed to have its third safety in the game to defend the deep pass, but injuries to Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward forced the Badgers to shift around wide receiver Jared Abbrederis to knock down the pass.
"We were kind of a Mash unit out there in the second half," Bielema said. "We didn't feel we had a third safety that we felt that could go up and knock a ball down."
All the stars had to be aligned for Michigan State. The Badgers' defense rushed three players, jammed three Spartans wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and knocked Nichol out of bounds, meaning he couldn't catch the ball if he wasn't the first player to touch the ball. He wasn't.
Cousins' pass deflected slightly off Abbrederis' outstretched hands, off a Michigan State player's helmet and to Nichol at the one-yard line. Being wrestled to the ground by linebacker Mike Taylor, Nichol was initially ruled down at the one-foot line. The play was reviewed, replays appeared to show that Nichol eked over the goal line while in Taylor's grasp and the ruling on the field was over tuned.
A year after letting Michigan State convert 50 percent (9-of-18) on third downs, the Spartans finished 8-of-16 converted three on their final drive, including the 44-yard Hail Mary. Game over.
"It's unfortunate," said Abbrederis, who led the team with catches (6) and yards (91). "It hurts. It hurts real bad. Anytime you work as hard as you do and it comes down to something like that, it hurts."
Wisconsin raced out to a 14-0 lead and appeared in firm control until the second quarter. Not only did the wheels come off, Wisconsin's machine was totaled. In its last four possessions of the first half, Wisconsin hit for the cycle: throwing an interception, penalty for a safety, blocked field goal attempt and a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown.
"A lot of different things happened," Bielema said. "Offensively, we weren't doing what we were supposed to be do. Defensively we were having troubles tackling. There were things that were good plays for them but if we just get them down, they aren't scoring easy touchdowns."
Entering the game having allowed their first six opponents seven combined trips into the red zone, Wisconsin could not have started better with its first two drives resulted in red zone scores, and both coming in different ways. On the first drive, the Badgers stuck with the ground game, seeing Ball run seven times for 43 yards and Wilson utilize the play-action pass to thwart the blitz and hit Jacob Pedersen for a 9-yard touchdown.
Michigan State's response couldn't have gone worse. As soon as Edwin Baker turned up field on the sweep, Taylor was right there to pop the junior and force a fumble that UW recovered on the Michigan State 30. One play, one turnover for the Spartans and a 9-yard touchdown for Ball three plays later to take a 14-0 lead.
It was at that point the engine started leaking oil. After Wilson was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, throwing the pass away to avoid two blitzing defenders, resulting in two Michigan State points, Keshawn Martin took a double reverse 34 yards for a score to ignite the crowd and trim the lead to 14-9.
Michigan State was only getting started. After getting stopped on third-and-2, Philip Welch's 30-yard field goal attempt was blocked, setting the offense on an 8-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by B.J. Cunningham's 35-yard catch-and-run on fourth-and-2. To throw more salt on the wounds, a three-and-out on the ensuing drive was compounded by the Spartans' full-out blitz blocking Brad Nortman's punt attempt, allowing the Spartans to recover in the end zone and take a 23-14 lead at halftime.
Wisconsin slowly dug out of it but the slipped back into the void in the final 79 seconds.
"Everything happens for a reason in this world," Bielema said. "I really do think that. I think we are going to take this experience, use it and apply it in our future opportunities … What you learn today, you'll be able to use in the future. You have to have faith in that.
"Somebody didn't want us to win this one for whatever reason. We just have to accept it, move forward and learn from it."