I keep circling through those final four minutes of Saturday’s inaugural Big Ten title game, and I keep coming to the same conclusion: Two plays cost MSU a Rose Bowl berth.
With the fourth-quarter clock winding down, it was a 36-yard desperation heave and a penalty for running into the kicker that stole history from the Spartans.
Everything prior was wiped out, the same way it happened when these two teams last met Oct. 22, when a last-second, 44-yard Hail Mary pass handed the Spartans the game.
The fortunes were reversed this time around.
Facing 4th-and-8, the Badgers offense desperately needed a first down with time running out and MSU holding a five-point lead.
Quarterback Russell Wilson took the snap, and with the pressure getting to him — as the Spartans defense had all game — he launched the ball to the first receiver he saw. It was one of those “just-can’t-take-a-sack” throws, but as it came down, wide receiver Jeff Duckworth jumped up and miraculously grabbed it.
It was the game-changer. It wasn’t the Spartans “Rocket,” but it had that same feeling. The Wisconsin reporter next to me slapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s about as close to a payback Hail Mary as you guys are going to get.”
He was right. The play left Wisconsin seven yards out, and its go-ahead touchdown was inevitable. A comfortable five-point lead was replaced by a three-point deficit, and the Spartans were left scrambling.
The next Wisconsin drive, with the clock now at two minutes, the Spartans stopped running back Montee Ball on three consecutive rushes. On the sideline, senior quarterback Kirk Cousins buckled up his chinstrap and was set to take the game into his hands.
But he never got that chance, as sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into the punter. It was a bad call, a dumb play, the punter flopped, however you want to describe it. But it effectively shut the door on the Spartans.
To add insult the injury, Lewis watched as senior wide receiver Keshawn Martin returned the punt to Wisconsin’s 2-yard line.
With the way sophomore running back Le’Veon Bell was running, anyone want to bet he wouldn’t have gotten in?
The hardest part of the loss is that MSU was clearly the better team.
Statistically, they dominated the Badgers, out-gaining them by 100 yards. I thought the Spartans play calling was better both offensively and defensively. From top to bottom, I felt it was their best game of the season.
Cousins also played exceptionally well, connecting with senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham for three scores. Everything seemed to be rolling in the Spartans’ favor, and then it was ripped away.
But even with last night’s unfortunate result, this team has so much to be proud of.
This was a year where no one gave them a chance to repeat. And in a year where everyone, including myself, truly thought last season’s success was a product of the schedule, the Spartans proved to they will threaten to stay atop the Big Ten for years to come.
So next year, when the team’s slogan is “prepare for the Rose Bowl,” or when Dantonio talks about the Big Ten Championship game, it won’t be so easily written off.
And there’s still statements left to make this year. Win their first bowl game under Dantonio, do it in a dominating fashion and show the BCS they made a mistake
It’s not fair to be denied a BCS Bowl. It’s not at all. But as head coach Mark Dantonio said, the Spartans “will rise again” next season, and this year, I believe him.