Both Michigan State and Wisconsin’s football seasons have been shaped by just a few inches.
The Spartans ruined the Badgers shot at a national title in October when Keith Nichol caught a Hail Mary pass and stretched nothing more than the nose of the ball over the goal line on the final play of the game.
Saturday, it was Michigan State stomaching near misses that cost them a trip to the Rose Bowl.
“It could be one little thing, one little inch here or there and we could have won the football game,” said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. “It's a game of inches. This football game is so close. You can't squeeze two fingers together sometimes, it's that close. This is very apparent. This game was much like that.”
The Spartans fell to Wisconsin 42-39 in the Big Ten Championship Game which felt eerily similar to the teams' first meeting.
Down by a field goal, on third-and-eight, with fewer than three minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins scrambled to his left and threw a pass down the sideline to Keshawn Martin. Martin leaped, grabbed the ball, and officials ruled he got his toe down just enough in bounds to complete the catch.
Upon further review, it was determined Martin landed out of play. Michigan State was forced to punt and give the ball back to Wisconsin.
“Thought about running. Possibly could have run for the first down,” said Cousins of the play. “I'll have to see the film. Keshawn opened up; game of inches.”
A game of inches.
Michigan State had one final opportunity to mount a comeback with Wisconsin punting on fourth-and-three with about two minutes left. Spartans cornerback Isaiah Lewis rushed to block the kick, but instead ran into punter Brad Nortman drawing a penalty. The five-yard flag gave the Badgers a fresh set of downs and, with no timeouts, Michigan State was forced to watch their dreams of a bid to Pasadena tick away.
“[Lewis] did nothing wrong. He (Mark Dantonio) calls for the block, you got to do that in that situation. He gave us 110 percent effort and the call doesn't go our way,” said Cousins. “That's the way it works sometimes.”
This time, wasn’t the Spartans time.
Michigan State is unlikely to receive a BCS bowl bid for the second consecutive year despite winning 10-games both seasons. In 2010, the team earned a share of the Big Ten crown. This year, they won the newly-formed Legends Division and came just short of winning the conference’s inaugural championship game.
But, just short is just that.
Ask their opponent from Saturday.
Wisconsin is happy to be headed back to the Rose Bowl. They played in it last year losing to TCU, but coming into this season, the focus in Madison was set not on Pasadena, but New Orleans and the National Championship.
Their heartbreaking last second loss in East Lansing on October 22nd put a serious wrinkle in those dreams, which then completely evaporated when Ohio State beat the Badgers the following weekend on another last second pass.
“It was very devastating after suffering the two losses. I think [with] the team we had, we were thinking national championship, national title game,” said defensive back Aaron Henry. “For us to lose the way we did in those two games, it was definitely devastating.”
Devastating yes, debilitating, no.
The Badgers’ back-to-back losses were crippling, but they refused to allow those two plays to be the lasting memories of their season.
Wisconsin went on to win its next five games, including the Big Ten Championship and again put itself in the national spotlight.
“I think this team has a sense of maturity about it and poise. Even through those two losses we were down,” said linebacker Chris Borland. “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. One thing you could do is move forward.”
Michigan State’s future is less certain. The Spartans will play in a bowl, but it probably will be one of lesser quality than they believe they deserve. Nonetheless, the team who is nicknamed after great warriors will have to find a way to battle through another setback.
“I do think that we're worthy to compete and play at a BCS level, but you've got to get the votes to do that. I can only say that I do believe we're a BCS-type football team,” said Dantonio. “You know, it could have gone the other way today. [The game] will be an instant classic for sure. But at the same time you have to be able to look at things, deal with the problems that you have and keep moving forward. I think that's part of life.”
Life and football are games of inches.