When I saw the schedule for this 2011 season I pointed this game out to every one of my friends who likes the Badgers and said “This is going to be a critical game not only for the Badgers’ season, but for the entire Big-10 conference.” After Michigan State lost to Notre Dame it didn’t seem like my prediction would come true, but boy did it ever prove to be correct. This game had immense ramifications not only for undefeated Wisconsin and one loss Michigan State, but for the rest of the teams in each division of the conference that are trying to catch both teams for a shot at the Big-10 title game.
I will readily admit that I missed the entire first half of this game. I was on my way back from an away game that my college’s football team lost (63-41, it was quite a shoot-out) and started watching instantly once I got back. I got to see Kirk Cousins and Le’Evon Bell drive down the field for a huge touchdown to put Michigan State up 31-17. I thought Wisconsin was toast at that point, especially because of how much trouble they were having slowing down Michigan State’s running game, plus they were struggling to move the ball effectively on offense. But Wisconsin’s defense made three great stops in a row and kept Wisconsin in the game, and Russell Wilson proved that he is worthy of a lot of the praise that he receives nationally by leading two touchdown drives in the last 10 minutes of the 4th quarter to tie the game at 31. On the game tying drive he was 4/4 with a huge 3rd down conversion, a fantastic throw on an extended play to Nick Toon, and then bought more time outside of the pocket, drew a defender in as he rolled to the sideline and dropped the ball off right over him to Montee Ball for an easy score.
This is where things got crazy.
Michigan State got the ball back and Cousins did not start strong. He checked down for three yards on his first pass, then short-armed a throw to the near sideline on a curl at the marker. 3rd and 7, and he threw a dart underneath to convert. Michigan State continued to try to move the ball, but couldn’t get significant chunks of yardage. With 30 seconds left, they were content to let the clock run out and take the game to overtime. But to my disbelief Bret Bielema called his second timeout of the half and stopped the clock, foolishly hoping to get the ball back to Russell Wilson and his suddenly potent offense. But with the ball around the 40 yard line, even if the Badgers had stopped the Spartans at that point they would have punted it and at best the Badgers could have hoped for the ball on the 30 yard line with 15 seconds or possibly less remaining. Not much time even with a timeout and Russell Wilson’s strong arm.
But Bilema decided to do it anyways, and Michigan State managed to convert and the game seemed to be slipping away from Wisconsin. But with 10 seconds left the Spartans found themselves outside of field goal range with only one timeout left. They snapped the ball and Cousins started scanning the field but the clock never started. In fact, the clock didn’t start running until after the play had nearly concluded and it continued to run after the play was over (all the way down to four seconds). Suffice it to say, in all the years I have been watching football I have never seen anything quite like that, and no one in the stadium seemed to notice nor did they seem to care. You’d think Michigan State would be interested in seeing if more time should have been allotted for that final play, but apparently not.
Then the craziest thing of all happened. After the timeout, Michigan State lined up with trips on the right side of the formation, Cousins rolled out to his right side to buy time and lobbed up a hail mary. Jared Abbrederis and a number of other players were down waiting for the ball near the end zone and Abbrederis jumped to try to catch it or knock it down but he didn’t time it right. The ball bounced off of a Michigan State receiver in the end zone and Keith Nichol, a former quarterback who transitioned to wide receiver after losing the starting job to Cousins, managed to catch it on the one yard line. He then fought tooth and nail to BARELY claw the ball over the goal line for a touchdown. Initially it was ruled that he was down on the one yard line, but when looking at the replays of the play it was clear that the ball crossed the plane of the end zone (even if it barely crossed it).
So, with that, the Spartans beat the Badgers for the second year in a row during a critical portion of the season. This doesn’t dramatically hurt the Badgers’ bid to ultimately become Big-10 champions because Michigan State and Wisconsin are in separate divisions, but it does all but dash Wisconsin’s chances at the BCS National Championship. Ohio State is looming after coming off of a quality win over then-ranked Illinois. Wisconsin travels to Columbus next, and it is imperative that they win this game to keep Ohio State from roaring back in the second half of the season. Michigan State maintained their lead in the opposite division ahead of Michigan, and if they win out they will be in the Big-10 Championship Game. Wisconsin is in the same boat, and I for one hope both win out so that we can see a rematch of this game. It probably won’t be as exciting or as unpredictable as this one was, but it would likely be a great game.