Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long and storied history. Today, we're going all the way back to 2011, and the best game of the Big Ten season. Well, in the regular season, anyway.
Ask any Big Ten fan what the best game of the conference season was in 2011, and odds are they'll say "Wisconsin vs. Michigan State." The real question is whether they're talking about the Big Ten championship (profiled earlier in this series here) or the regular-eason precursor.
Both teams ended the season with three losses, but coming into the game, the stakes were enormous. Wisconsin was undefeated and mashing fools in the process, sitting at fourth in both the AP and coaches' polls but only sixth in the BCS standings.
The Badgers needed a big road win for their strength of schedule, and two loomed at MSU and Ohio State the week after. A national title was absolutely within reach.
Michigan State, meanwhile, had just handed Michigan its first conference loss and was angling to stay atop the contentious Legends Division. Incredibly, the Spartans were the only Legends Division team still undefeated in conference play after just two weeks and the overwhelming favorite to win the conference (at that point) was coming to town to put a stop to that.
So, yes. There would be repercussions under the lights that October night in East Lansing.
Wisconsin looked every bit like a prize fighter in the early going. The Badgers methodically drove 80 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive, a drive in which the only third down they faced was the 3rd-and-9 where Russell Wilson found a wide-open Jacob Pedersen for a touchdown. 7-0.
Edwin Baker then fumbled on the first play of the ensuing drive, and Wisconsin needed all of three plays to get back into the end zone, just seven minutes and 18 seconds into the game. 14-0.
Michigan State was forced to punt on the ensuing drive, and Wisconsin had reached midfield again, when Russell Wilson threw an uncharacteristically poor bomb to Nick Toon. Or really, he threw it to safety Trenton Robinson, who caught it with such little need for adjustment that it looked like he was running the route.
And although Michigan State didn't score on the ensuing possession, it had finally punched back.
Michigan State's charge back was just beginning. Le'Veon Bell punched a hole in the Badger defense for 32 yards on the first play after the interception. The drive died at the Wisconsin 39, but that let the Spartans pin Wisconsin deep at its own 5-yard line to start the next drive.
On the second play, Wilson was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone; the Spartans were on the board with a safety, and they were getting the ball back.
And everybody in the house was a shark smelling blood.
What ensued was a 31-3 spree at the Badgers' expense, a run that included a blocked field goal, a 35-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-1 and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown—all before the half. The only reason Wisconsin even let the last punt off was because Michigan State had used all three of its first-half timeouts, stopping the clock on Wisconsin's drive. Remember that.
The third quarter saw little relief for Wisconsin. The Badgers got back within six points after a field goal, but Montee Ball had gotten banged up—check that, it looked like he got a concussion and was knocked out briefly on a helmet-to-helmet hit—and was on the sideline for most of the quarter. In Ball's stead, James White was largely mediocre against the tough Spartan defense.
A Cousins touchdown pass to Keshawn Martin (a play that was 99 percent Martin's doing) early in the fourth quarter finished Michigan State's spree—though they didn't know it at the time—and what was once a 14-0 Wisconsin laugher in the making had turned into a 31-17 Spartan lead with 11 minutes left. The Badgers responded by going three-and-out.
But, the Badger defense forced another punt, and finally, Wisconsin got a spark. Jared Abbrederis broke free for 33 yards on the return, putting the Badgers in Spartan territory, and on the second play, Wilson used a well-timed pump fake mid-scramble to break free for a 22-yard touchdown with 8:10 left. The game was back on.
Russell Wilson later led the game-tying drive, going 87 yards in 3:02 to knot the game at 31 with 1:26 to play, and after Michigan State found itself facing 2nd-and-20, at its own 24 with 42 seconds left, Wisconsin instinctively called timeout.
It was second-guessed by the announcers, as it happened, but remember: Michigan State did the exact same thing in the first half, and under almost the exact same circumstances—with Wisconsin facing 2nd and 20 at the 21. That worked for MSU, and if Wisconsin could so much as force a punt, it'd have been a good decision for the Badgers too.
It, of course, wasn't a good decision for the Badgers. Kirk Cousins and the Spartans converted the first down, then drove to the 44-yard line with four seconds left on the clock. You know what happens next. Let's watch it again anyway.
It doesn't even look like Nichol realizes that twist puts the ball across the plane when it happens. He wants the touchdown and eventually signals for it, as he's leaving the field, to be sure, but it's not as if he's celebrating before the ball's ruled down at the 1.
But it was a good call. It was absolutely a good call. The ball crosses the plane, and the officials recognize it (even as other angles are unclear enough that the refs can probably get away with saying the ruling "stands"). They had their one angle of indisputable evidence, and that's all you should need. It was, pretty simply, exactly the way replay ought to work.
We're lucky that these two teams got to face each other again, because this was as close to a draw as two teams can get in regulation. And indeed, the Big Ten championship was its own classic.
Maybe we'll see two more games from these two teams in 2012. If that's the case, odds are pretty good that Big Ten fans will be able to enjoy what ensues.