Even though he denied it after the game, it was clear that senior quarterback Russell Wilson was rattled by what Michigan State was throwing at him. It was to be expected, especially since Wilson hadn't seen a defensive unit like that since he was knee deep in ACC country.
The results showed with Wilson's 14-of-21 passing for 223 yards, two touchdowns, two ill-timed interceptions and a safety that stymied Wisconsin's offense.
The first interception and the safety only are partly Wilson's fault. Miscommunication between Wilson and Nick Toon, who missed last weeks' game, caused the senior wide receiver to never look back for the pass that landed easily in Trenton Robinson's arms. Wisconsin had already scored on its first two drives and a score there could have been the early dagger.
The safety was caused by a blitzing linebacker and Wilson didn't throw the ball away, he would have been nailed for the two points. Still, he could have tried to move more to his right out of the pocket or throw to the opposite side where there was a receiver.
"I didn't really know what to do," said Wilson. "The guy was right there and about to tackle me anyway. I just tried to give myself a chance in terms of throwing it away. It was going to be a safety if I didn't throw it. It's one of those things you hope they don't call, but they did."
After missing a wide-open Jacob Pedersen on third-and-7 in the end zone, forcing Wisconsin to settle for a field goal, Wilson tried to go back to Pedersen with just over seven minutes left and down seven. Flushed out of the pocket, Wilson threw an ill-advised pass to Pedersen. The pass was just out of the tight end's reach and right into the arms of Isaiah Lewis. It was easily Wilson's worst throw of the year.
"I was trying to give Pedersen a chance and they made a play on it," Wilson said. "It was one of those types of things where we had to come back and take some shots down the field. They came up with a play."
It's obvious that when Wilson is clicking, Wisconsin's offense is clicking, The Badgers offense was a machine in the first quarter, resulting in opening the game with consecutive scoring drives, and picked up the offense in the fourth quarter, as Wilson's pump fake bought him a 22-yard touchdown and his response after the interception was immaculate, leading UW on a 8-play, 87-yard drive to tie the game with less than 80 seconds to go.
Give credit to Wilson for helping the Badgers tie the game late, knocking his grade up a bit, but a couple of his early decisions but Wisconsin in a precarious position. As a result, Wisconsin's national championship and his Heisman Trophy hopes are likely done.
As much as fans are going to miss Russell Wilson, Wisconsin fans are going to miss Montee Ball just as much. One of the team's few indispensable players, Ball finished with 115 rushing yards, his third-straight 100-yard game and the 10th of his career. With 2,155 career rushing yards, Ball surpassed Carl McCullough (2,111) for 11th all-time at Wisconsin and his production was key in crunch time.
On the game's opening drive, Ball rushed 7 times for 43 yards. 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 9-yard touchdown.
To prove how valuable Ball is, after he suffered a head injury following a seven-yard run into the red zone, Wisconsin managed just 22 rushing yards on eight carries (2.8 yards per carry), no touchdowns, one field goal and a blocked field on the next six drives until Ball returned full time.
James White filled in admirably (11 carries, 42 yards) and Jared Abbrederis ran the end around well (4 carries, 33 yards), but nothing compared to Ball's pounding style that wore down the Spartans' defense to a tune of 6.4 yards per carry.
At least Nick Toon can take solace in the fact he will never have to play in Spartans Stadium again. A year after dropping the first pass thrown his way, one of the many negative momentum changers in that loss, Toon's inability to get on the same page with Wilson caused an interception that could have been a huge punch to the gut for Sparty. Instead, Wisconsin didn't find the end zone again until the 8:04 mark in the fourth quarter.
Toon caught only two passes for 58 yards and his 42-yard wide-open catch was a product of Wilson scrambling to buy time and Toon's defender not paying attention, allowing him to come back to the ball and set up UW on the MSU 15. Still, Toon didn't play well and him laughing after the game with B.J. Cunningham was disappointing.
Abbrederis led the team in both catches (6) and yards (91) but it was his dropped pass in the fourth quarter is one of the two things that put a blemish on his whole performance. Abbrederis beat Darqueze Dennard with a great move at the line of scrimmage and saw a sure touchdown pass slip right through his fingers. Wisconsin punted two plays later, changing the entire complexion of the game.
In big games, the Badgers need players to step up and the receivers failed to do so.
Junior Peter Konz talked about this game being a challenge against a defense that was going to send a ton of blitzes. With that having been said, Wisconsin's offensive line did a decent job protecting Wilson. After Michigan State registered seven sacks the week before, they registered just three on Wisconsin. However, Michigan State was charged with five quarterback hurries, a large stat against UW's offensive line.
On the same accord, the offensive line opened the gaps and made the blocks for Wisconsin to average 5.4 yards per carry and held a majority of its passing blocks long enough for Wilson to buy some time and create something down the field.
It could have been better and it could have been worse.
With Patrick Butrym cleared to play, the Badgers' defensive line came ready from the outset and was one of the bright spots. Michigan State gained just 109 yards rushing on 32 attempts, an average of 3.4 yards per carry, represent the second-fewest by a Wisconsin opponent this season.
It was a huge improvement after Indiana torched Wisconsin for 223 rushing yards the week before, but the numbers could have been less if it wasn't for a 34-yard touchdown run by Keshawn Martin on a double reverse, the second year in a row that Martin has beaten the Badgers with a big play.
Wisconsin is missing David Gilbert off the end (he is expected to return Nov.5) but the Badgers got good production from Louis Nzegwu (one sack, one pass breakup) and Brendan Kelly (career high two sacks, two quarterback hurries and one forced fumble) to thwart a number of Michigan State sweeps and some run plays.
Kelly was nearly the story of the game when he sacked Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins on the final drive, forcing a fumble that the Spartans were able to pounce on. It was another one of those ‘almost' moments that happened in the final minutes.
And you can't blame the Wisconsin d-line for the final drive either. Wisconsin chose to rush only three passers and quarterback Kirk Cousins burned UW's defensive coaches, going 4-for-4 against three or few rushers on the final game-winning drive.
Chris Borland and Mike Taylor played fine (Borland with 13 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry and Taylor with 7 tackles, 1 QB hurry and a forced fumble that led to UW's second touchdown) but still made mistakes, like Borland not picking up Cunningham on the crossing route and Taylor missing the tackle that led to the 35-yard touchdown. The other linebackers made too many mistakes on film.
The linebackers were out of position on Martin's reverse and didn't make enough plays in the passing game, resulting in the Spartans going 8-of-16 on third downs, a stat that was a major contributor to UW's undoing.
Wisconsin surrendered too many big plays and too many third-down conversions, not including the final 44-yard play on third-and-1. Kirk Cousins passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns, which falls on the secondary not making enough plays.
Marcus Cromartie played poorly. Like Taylor, He missed a tackle on Cunningham on fourth-and-2 that led to a 35-yard touchdown and his missed tackle on Martin on third-and-11 caused a 15-yard touchdown. Throw in the fact that he was beaten on the ensuing two-point conversation, and Cousins went right after him, it was a forgettable day for Cromartie.
"If we just get them down, they aren't scoring easy touchdowns," Bielema said. "We got to play tighter coverage … and come up and tackle quicker."
Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus each had an opportunity for an interception in the final quarter. No question they were tough plays, but both said it was a play they could have made. The most offensive stat is that the Spartans converted 8 of 16 third-down chances and their lone fourth-down chance.
"We fought hard in the second half and just came up short," Fenelus said.
The good news is that Phillip Welch drilled a 33-yard field goal in the third quarter to bring Wisconsin to within 23-17 and Abbrederis 33-yard return in the fourth quarter set up another touchdown. Other than that, the special teams were pretty much awful.
It has to be a matter of time before Bielema pulls Alec Lerner off kickoff duty, as the sophomore walk-on continues to digress in his role. Of his seven kickoffs, none went in the end zone, resulting in MSU starting at the 25-yard line or better five times. At least he didn't have a kick blocked.
The first error came on a 30-yard field-goal attempt early in the second quarter, which would have given Wisconsin a 17-9 lead. But the snap was wobbling, the hold was poor and the pressure from the left side of the line was overwhelming, leading to an easy block. Michigan State responded by driving 80 yards on eight plays for a touchdown to take a 16-14 lead.
The blocked punt on the ensuing drive was even worse. With it obvious that the Spartans were bringing the house, Robert Burge, one of the three linemen on punt protection, gave a lazy effort by not moving to his right and simply trying to forearm a charging Kyler Elsworth. Like trying to stop a freight train with a Beebe gun, Elsworth ran right past it and blocked the kick, which led to MSU's touchdown and a 23-14 MSU lead with 1:20 left in the first half.
It was the first blocked punt for a touchdown surrendered by Wisconsin since Nov. 13, 2004 against Michigan. The last blocked punt by a Badgers opponent came against Minnesota on Oct. 3, 2009. In a game as close as Saturday, mistakes like these two made all the difference.