Imagine what would have happened had Joel Stave played all four quarters. After struggling the last two weeks against subpar competition, Stave saved his best, unfortunately, for last. The redshirt freshman carved up the Spartans' five-ranked defense to the tune of 127 yards and a touchdown. More impressively, Stave completed 81.8 percent (9 of 11) of his passes and appeared to be comfortable and in a rhythm.
But after Stave landed hard on the turf on a sack by defensive end William Gholston, breaking his collarbone in the process, on the first play of the second half, Danny O'Brien never found a similar rhythm within the offense.
"We've been on him to try and get rid of the football when he's feeling pressure," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "On the play he was injured, you obviously just wished he would have got rid of the football quicker."
The circumstances were slightly different, but the Badgers only averaged 1.3 yards per play with O'Brien at quarterback, as five of his six second-half drives went for nine yards or fewer.
"It was tough," said O'Brien, who compared Michigan State's defense to Florida State. "That's a good defense. You have to give some of the credit to them but at the same time, we're a good offense and we left some plays out there, be it on the line, receivers or myself. We just have to make some plays. It was a field possession type of game … so you have to make some plays and put it in the end zone."
O'Brien will likely be the guy for the rest of the season. After struggling in his four Wisconsin appearances against FBS teams, O'Brien has to prove to fans that he's the right guy for the job.
Running for 804 yards in back-to-back weeks, Wisconsin's running game came back to earth with a thud against the Spartans' aggressive front seven. Montee Ball had a pair of 100-yard games against Michigan State last year, but rushed for only 46 yards Saturday – with 20 yards in losses.
"A lot of their players step up on their side of the ball," said Ball. "The linebacker did a great job, their corners and safeties were filling fast and Gholston did a good job."
The barge appeared to be a one-hit wonder, as James White had little success running the plays against a prepared Spartans' front. Not all the players were his fault, as penalties put UW in long-distance situations and wiped a UW touchdown off the board and a bad snap wrecked momentum. That's part of the reason the Badgers should wait to use those formations against better competition.
Wisconsin averaged a meager 0.5 yards per carry and had seven running plays that resulted in lost yardage. One of the most painful ones was an eight-yard loss on a toss sweep to the right on a third-and-1.
Tough day for Wisconsin's receivers in the second half and overtime, as the Badgers managed only had five receptions with a long of 11 yards. Part of it was O'Brien, another was the Spartans' defense bringing different pressures and other was a couple misses by the receivers.
Jacob Pedersen caught a 31-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter on a well scripted formation and led the team with 65 yards on three catches, but admitted he should have hauled in a third-and-11 pass in overtime on a corner route.
The pass fell incomplete, Wisconsin settled for a field goal and Michigan State won the game five plays later.
"That's completely on me," said Pedersen. "I need to come down with it."
Pedersen caught passes of 24 and 31 yards on UW's only touchdown drive and a 10-yard pass from O'Brien in the second half. Like many others, Pedersen said changing quarterbacks shouldn't have been a big deal for the offense.
Sam Arneson didn't make a catch, but was flagged for a holding penalty that negated White's 18-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. That cost UW a critical four points, as UW had to settle for a field goal and allow the Spartans to stay in the game.
It was three steps forward and one big leap backwards for Wisconsin's offensive line, which continues to falter against above-average competition. The blocking up front was nonexistent with Wisconsin being held to a season-low 19 rushing yards and giving up a season-high five sacks to a defense that only had six in their first eight games. At times in the second half, Michigan State's five-man rushes looked like the Spartans were rushing at least seven, as O'Brien rarely got enough time to make a play down the field.
Against a defense that had been allowing 100.2 rushing yards per game, Wisconsin averaged a meager 0.5 yards per carry and had seven running plays that resulted in lost yardage. The latter number doesn't include junior center Travis Frederick snapping the ball over the head of White on the barge package that resulted in a loss of 14 yards.
"It certainly was my fault," Frederick said. "It just was a little big high. In practice this week, they tended to be a little bit low, so I had been working on getting them up a little bit."
To make matters worse, Frederick, Bielema and White all said that the play probably could have gone for a touchdown if it was executed properly. The Spartans came in with 46 tackles for loss and added 12 TFLs to that total for minus-59 yards.
Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell was under pressure often, as the Spartans registered all three of the team's sacks (David Gilbert - 1.5; Pat Muldoon – 1; Beau Allen - .5). Gilbert said afterward that it was the most he's gotten to the quarterback all season, as he felt comfortable attacking a drop-back quarterback, but was adamant that the defensive line didn't do enough on the final two drives.
The Badgers held the running game to only 61 total yards. Le'Veon Bell was held to 77 yards on 21 carries (3.7 average). With the way the offense is sputtering, the defensive line will have to play like gangbusters the final four-five games.
Missed tackles weren't an issue against the Spartans, unlike last season, and that's a credit to the play of Mike Taylor (eight tackles, one tackle for loss), Ethan Armstrong (eight tackles, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hurry) and Chris Borland (seven tackles, one quarterback hurry).
Still, the issues that popped up in the fourth quarter and overtime are what killed Wisconsin in past years against Michigan State.
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, Bell's game-tying catch and Fowler's game-winning catch came on a third down.
"For the most part all season, we've been pretty good on third down," said linebacker Mike Taylor, as UW entered the game with the best third-down defense in the Big Ten (27.5 percent). That's a big part of the game, getting off the field on third down … and it was big (today).
"The defense played well all day. We let up for one minute and let Michigan State back in it."
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.
Devin Smith was the player of the game in my eyes. He finished with seven tackles, forced one fumble and had three pass breakups that were huge. Marcus Cromartie's solid play (six tackles, one breakup) got even better when he forced a fourth-quarter fumble that gave Wisconsin a chance to score a touchdown. Unfortunately, the offense could only manage a field goal, and that delayed the inevitable.
Wisconsin's cornerback play was the highlight of the game, and Dezmen Southward (five tackles, one tackle for loss) added to it. Darius Hillary had good coverage on Bennie Fowler in overtime, but simply fell victim to a great throw my Maxwell.
"We were playing to win the game, not to lose," said Cromartie. "Unfortunately, we came up short."
In his first season as a punter, freshman punter Drew Meyer learned a valuable lesson: running for one's life doesn't pay off. After dropping a low snap from sophomore James McGuire, Meyer sprinted left in hopes of getting a first down. Seeing several Michigan State defenders closing in, Meyer reversed course and tried to get off a punt near midfield. Michigan State blocked the punt and took over at the 11-yard line, but UW's defense forced the Spartans backwards.
"Our defense was phenomenal," Meyer said. "They bailed us out completely on that."
Meyer finished with seven punts for 289 yards (41.3-yard average) with a long of 53 and six punts inside the 20-yard line. He's been the team's MVP thus far this season.
Sophomore Kyle French has overcome his early season woes and kicked a 39-yard and 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and overtime, respectively. His overtime kick was into the wind, and put the pressure on Michigan State. French also averaged 65 yards and one touchback on his three kickoffs.
"He's really, I would say over the last two or three games, built his confidence," Bielema said of French, who improved to 8 of 11 on field goals. "He's a sophomore getting better."
Michigan State averaged 7.3 yards on its three punt returns and 25.0 yards on its two kickoffs.