Indianapolis, Ind. — Streamers and confetti rained down on the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd of 64,152 as the No. 15 Wisconsin football team celebrated its second consecutive Rose Bowl-birth. And as quarterback Russell Wilson grabbed ahold of the Big Ten title, Spartan Nation left, heads hanging and asking, “What if?”
What if Badgers wide receiver Jeff Duckworth, the unlikely hero of the game, didn’t out-jump sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis on a 4th-and-8 play to not only save the Badgers chances, but put them seven yards away from the go-ahead score?
And what if the Spartans’ safety had not bumped into Wisconsin’s punter with 1:37 left, as senior wide receiver Keshawn Martin returned that punt to Wisconsin’s 2-yard line?
The Spartans were four minutes from winning the inaugural Big Ten Championship game when everything went wrong and the sudden turn of events left the team and fan base empty, as the Badgers won the 42-39 shootout.
Although Lewis made a poor play on the punt, MSU head coach Mark Dantonio quickly took the blame.
Dantonio said he was trying to win the game. And after nearly blocking a punt earlier, he sent the sophomore off the edge, hoping he might get a piece of it. The decision backfired as Lewis bumped the punter and the yellow rag was thrown, but Dantonio wouldn’t leave his player hanging out to dry.
“No one play lost this football game and that’s what we got to understand,” Dantonio said. “No one play. No one call. Coaches could make better calls. I could make better decisions. It’s a team game and everyone’s going to play or win together.”
Throughout the first half, the game gave fans bouts of déjà vu as the second meeting between the Badgers and Spartans was eerily similar to their last on Oct. 22 at Spartan Stadium.
Wisconsin jumped out to an early 14-point lead because of a fumble in the first contest. On Saturday, the Spartans fumbled a kickoff and two plays later, thanks to Montee Ball’s first touchdown of the night, found themselves in that same hole.
But like that October night, MSU battled back in the second quarter behind a seemingly possessed Cousins and a late-arriving defense.
With the score 21-7, Cousins faked a pitch on 4th-and-1 and turned to see a wide-open B.J. Cunningham 33 yards down the field. The Holland, Mich., native threw a perfect ball, and the furious comeback began.
One drive later he threw a quick screen to Nichol, who ran three yards and falling out of bounds, lateralled to Cunningham so he could finish off the touchdown. A two-point conversion, fake field goal run by senior wide receiver Brad Sonntag gave MSU its first lead, 22-21.
Meanwhile, after allowing Ball to run wild in the first quarter with 137 total yards and two touchdowns, the country’s No. 3 defense showed up and held the Badgers to four consecutive three-and-outs.
The half ended and the Spartans were on a 22-0 run.
“I felt like we were having our way offensively all game long. We never felt like we won, there was a lot of time left, but we did what we wanted offensively.”
However the conference’s best offense wasn’t about to be shutout for the rest of the game.
The Badgers scored three touchdowns in the second half. Two came from Ball, who finished with four total and is now one shy of tying Barry Sanders’ single-season record of 39.
It was No. 38 that proved to be the dagger. After a desperation heave from Wilson that Duckworth pulled down, Ball capped off the drive and the ensuing two-point conversion made it a three-point game.
With two timeouts and 3:40 left, Cousins took control of his offense in an attempt to lead his team to field goal range. On 3rd-and-8 he scrambled and found Martin on the sideline, but after further review the senior receiver couldn’t get his foot down.
The Spartans punted, and it would be the last time the offense touched the ball.
Cunningham finished with a career-high three touchdowns and Cousins threw for 281 yards, but none of that mattered on a night where the Spartans were left looking for a meaning to their season.
The Spartans amassed the best regular-season conference record, a win over a then-unbeaten Wisconsin and a battle to the bitter end in the rematch. And yet they will likely find themselves in the Capital One or Outback Bowl. To Dantonio, that hardly seemed fair.
“I can’t make that decision,” Dantonio said. “I do think that the bet two teams in the Big Ten played today. I do think that we’re worthy and can compete at a BCS level. But you got to get the votes to do that.”