Clinging to a three-point lead with 1:57 left in Saturday night's Big Ten Conference championship game, Wisconsin faced fourth-and-3 at its own 26-yard line and was about to punt the ball back to Michigan State one last time. But Nortman was bumped by Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis; he whirled and fell, drawing a running into the kicker penalty that gave the Badgers a first down.
With the Spartans out of timeouts, the Badgers were able to kneel on the ball and run out the final seconds of their 42-39, Rose Bowl-clinching victory.
Nortman smiled throughout his postgame press conference as he answered questions about how much he exaggerated the hit by Lewis.
"I've gotten texts about acting classes and things like that. I can't confirm nor deny anything like that," Nortman said with a smile.
The penalty took on an increased magnitude when Michigan State's Keshawn Martin returned Nortman's 41-yard punt to the Wisconsin 3-yard line. The Spartans would have been in golden position to regain the lead - or at least tie the game with a chip-shot field goal - with just seconds on the clock.
Lewis came free off the edge and lightly hit Nortman as he followed through on his block attempt. Nortman collapsed to the ground as the official threw the flag.
Even Nortman's own teammates were giving him a good-natured ribbing over the play. One of them called Nortman a "faker."
"I think that's kind of a bold accusation," Nortman said, still smiling. "I was touched, certainly. It doesn't hurt to put a little extra on it. … Part of a punter's job is to get calls like that, so I was glad I was able to help the team out."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said he opted to go for the punt block in part because the Spartans nearly got one earlier in the game. Michigan State also blocked a Nortman punt in the teams' first meeting on Oct. 22 and returned that one for a touchdown.
"Based on the way that they had changed their punt up from the last time, it left a guy free off the edge. We almost blocked one in the end zone," Dantonio said. "With 1:57 to go, it was my call. I told them, ‘Let's go for the block.'"
After Wisconsin's first match-up against Michigan State was derailed by a blocked punt turned touchdown in the second quarter, the Badgers' special teams gave solid protection, allowing Nortman to average 45 yards on five punts and UW to win the special teams battle with Conor O'Neill registering a forced fumble on a first-quarter kickoff that led to a touchdown.
"I preached special teams all week," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "We came up with the big play. … We really stressed the four phases of the kicking game all week as we do every week and thankfully it paid off."
Duckworth answers Wilson's prayer
Wisconsin's go-ahead touchdown was set up by an improbable fourth-down conversion.
On fourth-and-6 at the Michigan State 43-yard line, Wilson took a shotgun snap and looked over the middle. Finding no receivers open, he scrambled to his left, and for a second considered running for the first down.
Wilson noticed a Spartans linebacker in pursuit, however, and wisely chose to pull up. He took one last look downfield and on the opposite side of the field saw Jeff Duckworth. Wilson fired a javelin toss toward Duckworth, who out leaped a defender and hauled in the pass.
The amazing play went for 36 yards and kept the Badgers' hopes alive. On the next play, Montee Ball scored on a seven-yard run, and the ensuing two-point conversion gave Wisconsin a 42-39 lead with 3:45 remaining.
"I went through my progression … they covered it up. I kind of skipped out of the pocket to the left, thought I could run for it possibly. Then they pursued me," Wilson said. "I knew Duckworth was running deep back to the back corner, and that was my only shot, really. I just gave him a shot. I knew that he would come down with it once I put it up in the air. It was a pretty spectacular play."
Duckworth caught three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the game, but no catch was bigger than that 36-yard bombshell.
"I was just running a corner route, a back corner. It was kind of a bad route," Duckworth said. "I just looked back and Russell just threw it up, and I was able to go up and make a play. …
"I knew the safety was coming and I knew the corner had his back to me, so I knew I had the advantage over him. I was able just to track it down and go up and make a play."
Ball starts hot, cools
Running back Montee Ball finished with 137 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving), giving him 38 in a season that has become increasingly deserving of Heisman Trophy consideration.
But 105 of those yards and two of those touchdowns came in the first quarter. After that, a rejuvenated Michigan State defensive line put the clamps on the Badgers' running game.
When asked what happened to the Badgers' ground game, Ball had a simple answer.
"Michigan State. They're a really physical team. They have one of the best run defenses in the nation," he said. "They did a great job of capitalizing on a couple of our runs."
It was mostly the Wisconsin passing game that got the Badgers back into the lead, but Ball had enough left in the tank to deliver the go-ahead touchdown on a seven-yard run with 3:57 left.
"I take everything to heart. So after a couple of runs were stopped I really took it to heart and told myself that I have to make some plays," said Ball. "I really wanted to put the offense on my back."