For one thing, this was supposed to be a statement game for Wisconsin and its defense. After playing three cupcake conference opponents and getting Michigan State – its newest conference rival – at home for the first time since 2009, the Badgers appeared primed and in position to put its early season woes behind them permanently.
Instead, after 53 minutes and change of solid football, Wisconsin let Michigan State shove another end-of-the-game victory right down its throats, as Wisconsin's defense couldn't bail out its inept offense any longer. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw one touchdown pass in the final minute and another on the final play of overtime to best Wisconsin, 16-13.
"Michigan State just seems to have our number when it comes to late game heroics," said senior cornerback Marcus Cromartie. "They dialed another one right there."
After a grueling month of fall camp followed by nine consecutive weeks of football, Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) will stew during its bye week after having two streaks snapped and one continued.
For starters, Wisconsin saw its 21-game home win streak ended; a steak that is the second-longest in school history, trailing only a 25-game win streak from 1900-03. After winning 12 straight conference games at home, including a pair of wins over top-10 teams, the Badgers saw that run end, as well.
The only streak that continued was its regular season ineptness against Michigan State (5-4, 2-3), as the Spartans made it three straight seasons with a regular season win over the Badgers.
While defense and special teams were the culprit in previous meetings, this one falls squarely on the offense, or lack thereof.
After rushing for 804 yards in its last two games, Wisconsin managed 19 rushing yards rushing, its fewest in five years. Montee Ball, who had averaged better than 125 yards rushing in his last three games, was held to 46. James White added 16, as Wisconsin averaged a meager 0.5 yards per carry and had seven running plays that resulted in lost yardage.
"After a seven-, eight-yard run, I felt like momentum was on our side and the next play would be a loss," said Ball, who rushed for over 100 yards in both meetings with Michigan State last year. "They are a good defense, but we weren't executing." It got worse. Making his sixth straight start, Joel Stave got into a rhythm early and led Wisconsin on its only touchdown drive – 10 plays, 90 yards – between the first and second quarter. But after getting taken down by defensive end William Gholston, Stave was done, as it was later confirmed he suffered a broken collarbone and will be sidelined for the season.
With Danny O'Brien under center, Wisconsin's offense really struggled for yardage. UW ran 26 plays for 147 yards with Stave (5.65 per play) and 33 plays for 43 yards after O'Brien took over (1.30).
"As the game went on when they were down, we kind of knew, and they did, pressure us more," said O'Brien. "A lot of different blitz looks with some tricky coverages behind it … It was a field possession game all day. We didn't turn it over, but we have to make some plays."
Still, Wisconsin was in position to win late in the fourth quarter because it fixed most of the issues that had plagued them in recent series with Michigan State, particularly special teams' issues in the second quarter.
As a result, Wisconsin's defense turned a first-and-10 at the 11 and guaranteed points to a fourth-and-33 at the 34 and a Michigan State punt.
"We were feeling really good," said senior Shelton Johnson. "Coach Ash always talks about putting the ball down on the field. No matter where they are on the field, no matter what happened the previous play before that, put the ball down and play defense. That really showed our defensive philosophy on that drive." The last three meetings have caused special teams blunders. From Keshawn Martin 74-yard punt return in 2010 to blocked punt and faked extra points in 2011, Michigan State has scored 16 points off of special teams.
All of those points have come in the second quarter. In the last three meetings, the Spartans have outscored the Badgers, 62-10, in the second 15 minutes. The last two games, Michigan State owns a 45-0 edge in that quarter, outgaining Wisconsin 396-to-51. Five Wisconsin drives in the second quarter resulted in negative yards.
Saturday, Wisconsin outscored Michigan State, 7-3, and outgained the Spartans, 98-55, in the second quarter.
"Michigan State wasn't giving up much but when they did, we needed to capitalize," said Jacob Pedersen, whose 31-yard touchdown catch broke a string of 62 straight second-quarter points scored by Michigan State over three games. "We capitalize on it, but with other plays later on we kill ourselves with a penalty. We can't do that against good teams."
That would have been the game's defining moment had Wisconsin's defense not buckled in crunch time. After Wisconsin could only manage three points after a turnover gave the Badgers the ball on the Michigan State's 18-yard line, the Spartans tied the score at 10-10 with a 75-yard touchdown drive, scoring on a 5-yard shovel pass to tailback Le'Veon Bell with 1:08 to play.
Losing the toss and being put on offense first, Wisconsin had to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Kyle French after UW went minus-1 yard on three plays. That gave the Spartans the opening it needed, as Maxwell his Bennie Fowler on a 12-yard back-shoulder throw in front of the UW student section.
"I think the defining moment of the game in terms of the overall picture of that game, because you have to play it as they come, but when we fumbled the football and they get it on the 18 or whatever it is and we hold them to three points," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. "That's big. It at least puts us one score from tying it. Had they scored a touchdown it obviously would have been much more difficult."
In the last two meetings, Wisconsin had allowed 11 plays of at least 20 yards, including eight through the air and five from touchdowns. The Badgers limited the Spartans to only three 20-plus plays, but gave up one on the final drive of regulation and again were crushed on third downs.
Seeing Michigan State convert 51.1 percent (24 of 47) on third downs the last three meetings, Michigan State went 9 of 17 (52.9 percent) on third down Saturday and just like Keith Nichol's hail Mary grab, Fowler's game-winning catch came on a third down.
"For the most part all season, we've been pretty good on third down. That's a big part of the game, getting off the field on third down, … and it was big (today)." The loss means little in the grand scheme of things for Wisconsin. The Badgers still can clinch a berth in the conference championship game in Indianapolis Dec.8 with a win at Indiana in two weeks. That will have to be the message delivered over what it's going to be a painful two weeks to wait.