"We always knew we were tough," said sophomore linebacker Chris Borland. "This gave us an opportunity to show us."
In a sequel that somehow surpasses the team's regular-season meeting, No.15 Wisconsin, undeterred and unwavered after another ugly dose of second-quarter adversity, stormed back by eight points late in the third quarter to win an improbable 42-39 victory over the Spartans in the Big Ten Championship game in front of a crowd of 64,152 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"The offense, what they were able to do in generate points for us, was utterly amazing," said senior Aaron Henry, who was the last UW player off the field with a rose clenched between his teeth. "We made those stops when we needed to make them. It was a total, total team effort.
"In the way we suffered that first loss, it was definitely devastating. It feels that much better now that we did win this game."
Senior quarterback Russell Wilson responded from a dismal first half - completed 5 of 9 passes for 30 yards and a touchdown - to complete 12 of 15 attempts for 157 yards and two touchdowns after halftime, earning game MVP honors after orchestrating scoring drives of 62, 52 and 54 in the last 24 minutes, 13 seconds.
"That's the way I look at it – that adversity is going to bring us to another great opportunity," said Wilson, who broke the NCAA record by throwing a touchdown pass in 37 consecutive games. "That opportunity tonight was to excel on the football field and come up with some big time plays when we needed to."
Wisconsin (11-2) needed them and badly against a Michigan State team that appeared once again to have its number. The Spartans (10-3) outgained Wisconsin 471-345, out passed Wisconsin 281-219, out rushed Wisconsin 190-126 and again torched Wisconsin's defense by completed 7 of 13 third downs and seeing its one fourth-down conversion going for a 30-yard touchdown.
But the big plays were there and Wisconsin used them to its advantage.
- Conor O'Neill forced a fumble on kickoff for the second straight week that led to seven points. Unlike the first meeting between the two schools, Wisconsin didn't have a turnover while the Spartans had two.
- No.3 wide receiver Jeff Duckworth, who entered the night with 12 receptions for 177 yards, had three catches for 53 yards, but none was bigger than his 36-yard reception on fourth-and-6 that effectively was the ball game. Duckworth adjusted in midair, caught the ball at the MSU 7 and set up junior running back Montee Ball's fourth touchdown of the game and UW's first lead since early second quarter.
- On the ensuing drive, Wisconsin's defense forced a three-and-out, just its third of the game, and MSU coach Mark Dantonio elected to punt with 2:51 left, trusting his defense would get the ball back. It would have worked had Isaiah Lewis, who famously said before the teams' first meeting that the MSU was going to come and hurt Wilson, ran into punter Brad Nortman on a fourth-and-3, giving UW a first down. MSU had no timeouts, and watched as the Rose Bowl flittered away for a second straight season, taking away most of UW's pain from the 44-yard Hail Mary pass during the team's previous meeting with it.
On the flip side, it's Wisconsin's second consecutive Big Ten title - something that has happened only two other times in school history (1896 97 and 1998-99) – and it's eighth trip to the Rose Bowl – something UW has only done once in back-t0-back years (1998-99).
"I can't say enough about our room led by our captains, led by our seniors," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "So many guys gave tremendous faith during the most difficult time probably in their playing career. After those two defeats, to have a group of guys come back and focus on a four-week stretch to come into this week and play the way we did, I was very excited.
"All week, we talked about playing Michigan State. We knew that if we won the game the Rose Bowl was going to be there and everything that went with it. I read a lot of their papers of them preparing for the Rose Bowl. We just focused on Michigan State and I think our task and our direction really paid off well for us down the stretch."
After completing a 32-yard pass to Wilson and rushing for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter (more yards than the Spartans allowed per game (102.5) entering the night), Ball grinded the rest of the night with only 39 total yards the last three quarters, but kept his feet churning on the 7-yard run after Duckworth's memorable grab.
Ball has scored at least three touchdowns in eight of Wisconsin's 13 games this season and now has 38 touchdowns on the season, second-best in NCAA history, trailing only Barry Sanders (39 in 1988).
"After a couple of runs were stopped I really took it to heart and told myself I have to make some plays," Ball said. "I really wanted to put the offense on my back."
The inaugural Big Ten Championship game following practically the same script to the team's first meeting in East Lansing on October 22. Wisconsin jumped out to a 14-point first-quarter lead on the heels of Ball, who delivered a key block on third-and-3 to allow Wilson to find Duckworth for a 3-yard score and delivered a pair of bruising 6-yard runs that carried MSU defenders into the end zone.
Just like what happen in Michigan State, the Spartans turned on the momentum in the second quarter. Scoring on drives of 80, 57 and 84 yards, Michigan State racked up 208 yards, held Wisconsin's high-powered offense to minus-4 yards and put in 23 unanswered points to take a 29-23 halftime lead
In the last two games between the two schools, Wisconsin has outscored Michigan State 35-7 in the first quarter only to see the Spartans come right back by outscoring the Badgers 45-0 in the second 15 minutes.
"For whatever reason, we don't play well in the second quarter against Michigan State, so we survived it," Bielema said.
If anything could go wrong, it did. The Badgers allowed Kirk Cousins – who finished 22 of 30 for 281 yards and three touchdowns - to complete 12 of 15 passes for 138 yards and two scores in the second quarter, picking on any UW secondary member he saw fit. He hit Keshawn Martin along the sidelines for 28 yards on third-and-6, Le'Veon Bell in the flat for 13 and used the play action to cause B.J. Cunningham to be wide open for a 30-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1, the first play of the second quarter that started the whole mess.
Wisconsin was even caught napping after the Spartans cut the lead to 21-20, seeing holder Brad Sonntag take the snap and run around the right end for an easy two-point conversion that gave MSU the lead until the final three minutes.
Even when the Badgers did do something positive they couldn't capitalize. After Shelton Johnson broke Cousins' streak of eight completions to start the game with a diving interception, his fourth straight game with a pick, the Badgers went minus-5 yards in three plays, punting the ball back to the Spartans.
It was just another helping of adversity that Wisconsin had to overcome on its road back to Pasadena, as the Badgers' defense limited the Spartans to just 54 fourth-quarter yards and got to smell the roses yet again.
"Michigan State did a great job, exposed some things with their athletes and just made plays," linebacker Chris Borland said. "We weren't pleased by our defensive performance but in a game like this when you make plays in the second half to help your team win, you are going to be excited.
"Pasadena is a dream come true. There is no game like the Rose Bowl. It's a special, special game and to represent the Big Ten after winning the first ever Big Ten championship game, it's going to be extra special."