UW scored on its first two possessions, racked up 443 yards of offense and tallied 31 points against one of the nation's stingiest defenses.
The performance was also marked by uncharacteristic miscues, two interceptions, and a sequence in the heart of the game when the Spartan defense seemed to dictate the tempo.
But in the second half the Badgers slowly built back momentum on offense, and improbably managed two late fourth quarter touchdowns when it appeared the game was slipping out of reach.
"We always stuck to our game plan and we always battled," center Peter Konz said. "There wasn't a point where you thought it was over. As you saw, we were fighting to the very end. There was going to be no giving up."
Wisconsin's offense asserted itself in impressive fashion on the game's opening drive. UW ran on its first five plays, collecting 28 yards—including 25 yards on four Montee Ball carries to start the game. On a second and seven, the UW offensive line picked up an MSU blitz, providing Wilson with time to find tight end Jacob Pedersen for a 14-yard pickup to the MSU 38.
Ball then went back to work, rushing three times on UW's next four plays for 18 yards to set up Wilson's nine-yard touchdown pass to Pedersen. On that play, MSU sold out to stop the run, leaving Pedersen wide open in the end zone.
After MSU fumbled on its first play, the Badgers needed just three plays and 51 seconds to cover 30 yards, with Ball dashing nine yards up the middle threw a huge hole for an easy touchdown.
Late in the first quarter, though, the Badgers offensive invincibility came to a screeching halt. With about 30 seconds left in the quarter, Wilson threw an interception to Trenton Robinson on what appeared to be a miscommunication with standout receiver Nick Toon, who never looked back for the pass.
The Badgers defense held, but the momentum had firmly shifted—and Michigan State's defense had life. Suddenly, UW's running game began to stall, Wilson had little time to set in the pocket, and the Badgers began to look uncomfortable and make uncharacteristic mistakes.
UW still held a commanding 14-0 lead when it started a drive at its 5-yard-line early in the second quarter. Ball took a handoff up the middle and was almost immediately met by Jerel Worthy, three yards behind the line of scrimmage. On second down from the 2, UW tried to run a near maximum protection, with Abbrederis running down the left sideline. But Wilson, who was quickly pressured, took two strides to his right and fired the ball downfield toward vacant turf. Wilson, though, was not outside the tackle box and was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in safety for MSU.
"I didn't really know what to do," Wilson said. "The guy was right there about to tackle me anyway. So I decided just to give myself a chance in terms of throwing it away. It was going to be safety if I didn't call it. It was one of those things where hopefully they don't call it, but they did."
The Badgers zipped down the field on their next play, but Ball was injured at the tail end of a seven-yard run to the MSU 14. That left third-and-two, and after White was stuffed a yard short of the first down, Phillip Welch's 30-yard field goal attempt was blocked, leaving UW's lead at 14-9.
"I stumbled a little bit but I feel fine," said Ball, who fell on his way back to the huddle after the seven-yard-run and needed to leave the field, but returned and played well in the second half. "I'm not sick to my stomach and my head doesn't hurt at all actually."
UW started its next possession with 1:15 left in the half, but MSU was able to force a punt with 45 seconds remaining, on a drive that started with a 10-yard sack of Wilson. Nortman's punt was blocked and bounded all the way into the UW end zone, 35 yards from the line of scrimmage, where Bennie Fowler recovered it for an MSU touchdown and a 23-14 Spartan lead.
The Badgers opened the third quarter with a 74-yard drive for an important field goal, closing the lead to 23-17. But on third-and-seven from the 16, Wilson nearly connected with Pedersen for a touchdown. Wilson was scrambling to his left and Pedersen slipped behind his defender, but Wilson and Pedersen weren't quite on the same page, and Wilson's throw sailed well out of Pedersen's reach.
With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, and UW still trailing 23-17, Wilson had another opportunity to hit Pedersen for a touchdown, but he never had an opportunity to see him. Wilson rolled to his right and then looked to throw back to his left, but with Max Bullough closing in, Wilson heaved a pass down the left sideline for Montee Ball that fell incomplete. Ball was closely defended, while Pedersen was completely uncovered in the seam.
Still the Badgers kept grinding, and the defense gave Wilson and Co. chances.
"I knew our team and how we handle our business," Konz said. "This is not a group that gets down. We have a mature group… We kept climbing back."
Down 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter, Abbrederis dashed 33 yards on a punt return, Ball ran for 21 yards, and Wilson engineered a masterful 22-yard touchdown run, using a pump fake when he was just beyond the line of scrimmage to get Isaiah Lewis to leap in the air, allowing Wilson to zip by him on his way to the end zone. Just a minute later Wilson had the ball back at the UW 25 with 7:02 to play. But he proceeded to throw his second interception of the game—to Lewis.
"I was just trying to give Pedersen a chance and they made a play on it," Wilson said. "I had to take some shots, and they made a play on it."
Impressively, however, UW's defense held, forcing a punt four plays later. This time, the Badgers offense marched down field, covering 87 yards in eight plays over three minutes, two seconds to tie the game at 31-31 with 1:26 left on the clock. On the drive, Ball ran three times for 22 yards and Wilson was 4-for-4 for 72 yards, including a Houdini-esque 42-yard pass to Toon, where Wilson scrambled left, rolled right and then found Toon along the sideline. Wilson capped the drive with a two-yard pass to Ball, after he again escaped pressure.
"We just kept believing and kept pushing and we came up with some big plays," Wilson said.
Alas, UW's offensive fourth-quarter revival came up just short, after the Spartans hail marry final play.
"Defense did a great job in the second half of giving us the ball back and giving us chances," Wilson said. "We capitalized on those chances near the end there… just a shocker at the end."
"You have to take it for what it is," Konz said. "Sometimes you are the team that has the miracle and sometimes somebody gets the miracle on you. That's just how sports are.
"We've played the game long enough to be mature about this and move forward and get better."