|Montee Ball runs for 252 yards and four touchdowns this season against Michigan State. (US Presswire)|
Hey, why not? The best two teams in the Big Ten provided us with the best two games in the Big Ten, and now the season series is knotted at 1-1. How could you possibly pick a better game of the two, or a better team of the two?
"I want to know a team that's better than the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten than Wisconsin," said senior wide receiver Keith Nichol. "I think those two teams need to be in a BCS game, and I wouldn't mind if the BCS game was a Michigan State and Wisconsin game, because that's how much I respect them, how much of a good game we get out of them. It's a great, epic Big Ten football game."
The Badgers and Spartans won't play a third game, of course; Wisconsin is Rose Bowl bound after Saturday night's 42-39 victory, while Michigan State's postseason fate rides on the whims and vagaries of the bowl selection committees over the next couple days -- but the Spartans' eventual destination is going to be pretty good no matter what.
Moreover, with any luck, a third game might also provide the Spartans the sense of conclusiveness most of them didn't get from this championship game. Not when a key late third-down throw from Kirk Cousins to Keshawn Martin resulted in a catch overturned by replay. And not when Michigan State's lone opportunity to get the ball back for one last drive was nullified by MSU safety (and Indianapolis native) Isaiah Lewis running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman, giving Wisconsin a first down and the ability to run out the clock.
"I think the guy ran into him," Bret Bielema said when asked if Nortman "sold" the penalty by flopping. "I understand what you're saying and I'm sure that's going to be some question out there. He hit him. He got the 5-yard penalty, gave us the first down. It is what it is."
Both teams fought with a prizefighter's resilience on Saturday, and while that fact eventually tipped the scales in Wisconsin's favor, it also helped Michigan State make the case that it, too, belongs in a BCS bowl. If ever there were a template for a borderline BCS-level team to strengthen its case for an at-large bid, this would be it nearly to a T, would it not?
"I think Michigan State came out and proved today that we can compete on a national stage and a national game," said senior Spartan offensive lineman Joel Foreman. "I think that we can play with anyone."
Bret Bielema also hailed the Spartans' quality.
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"[Michigan State is] a very talented football team," Bielema said. "Can't argue with that."
At the outset, this looked like Wisconsin's game all the way, and a nascent prime-time coronation for Montee Ball as the nation's best running back. Ball had 105 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 rushes in the first half, and his offensive line was gashing the vaunted Michigan State rushing defense. Ball even threw a beautiful 32-yard pass to Russell Wilson in the first half -- a play that would leave Ball as the team's leading passer until early in the third quarter.
It was after that first quarter, however, that the Spartan defense began to take Ball -- and the Wisconsin offense -- out of the game. Ball would finish with 27 carries and 137 yards and four total touchdowns, and as a whole those numbers are great, but that means that the Spartans held him to 14 rushes for 32 yards after the first quarter; at that rate, it's no surprise that Michigan State went on a 29-7 spree through the middle of the game.
And yet just like last year, when Wisconsin survived a similar 31-3 spree by the Spartans to tie the game at 31-31, the Badgers were relentless in their fight back.
"This team has a sense of maturity about it, and poise," said linebacker Chris Borland. "Tonight we never got flustered. Our leaders did a good job of rallying us, and no matter how much we were down by or what the stakes were, we understood. We performed well when we needed to."
Still, even after the Badgers had clamped down and held Michigan State to 10 second half points, the Spartans still led 39-34 with four minutes left, and Wisconsin had run into a 4th and 6 on MSU's 43-yard line. With one last opportunity to save the Rose Bowl bid, Wilson needed to dial up a miracle -- and he did.
"[Jeff] Duckworth coming down with that fourth down catch was pretty unbelievable," Wilson said. "I kind of skipped out of the pocket to the left. I thought I could run for it possibly, and they pursued me. I knew Duckworth was running deep back to the back corner, and that was my only shot, really. And I just gave him a shot. I knew he would come down with it once I put it up in the air, and it was a pretty spectacular play."
Duckworth's catch, a leaping grab in double coverage, set up a first-and-goal at the MSU 7-yard line, and Montee Ball ran in for the score on a shovel pass on the very next snap in what would be the eventual game-winner.
What ensued for Michigan State after that -- the debatable but ultimately incomplete throw from Cousins to Martin, then the forced punt that resulted in the killer running into the kicker penalty -- will haunt Spartan fans for at least as long as it takes for their team to win the Big Ten Championship.
"You hate to see it come down to something like that," Foreman said. "You wish that as a player you'd get the opportunity to come out and play an entire game and not have it come down to a penalty. But it happens, it's part of football, and I can point to a hundred other plays that if you did something different on this play maybe we wouldn't have even been in that position, or vice versa. It's unfortunate, but you can't change it."
For Bielema, the reversal of fortune was downright spiritual.
"A common saying that we've been using quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is, 'those who are humbled will be exalted, and those who are exalted will be humbled.' And I thought that [Duckworth catch] right there gave justice to everything."
So being that that's so, and being that these two teams provided fans with such unbelievable games this season, what's the harm in wishing there could be one last game to complete the trilogy? But alas: we'll just have to wait 329 whole days for October 27, 2012, when Michigan State visits Camp Randall. For both teams and both fan bases, the countdown starts now.