Sequels are never better than the original right?
Don’t tell that to Wisconsin and Michigan State. The two teams, who in October, played arguably the best game of the 2011 college football season, followed it up with another epic battle Saturday in the Big Ten Championship.
“To win the first ever Big Ten Championship game is pretty awesome,” said Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. “One-hundred years from now people will look back and say, ‘Who won that game? Who won that first ever game?,’ and it’s Wisconsin.”
A month-and-a-half after losing to the Spartans on a Hail Mary in East Lansing, the Badgers punched their ticket to the Rose Bowl with a 42-39 win and did so with almost as much drama as the first go around.
The Badgers jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the first quarter. Montee Ball helped his team build the 14-point advantage with a pair of six-yard touchdown runs. He finished the first 15-minutes with 105 of his 140 total rushing yards
But just as they did in the first meeting, Michigan State erased the double-digit deficit by halftime. The Spartans scored 22-straight in the second quarter, including two touchdowns (30, 7) by senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.
The second one involved some improvisation. MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins completed a pass to Keith Nichol who was running out of bounds but before he did, he pitched it to Cunningham who finished the play in the end zone.
The Spartans then scored a two-point conversion on a fake extra point and added a Le’Veon Bell touchdown on the next drive to take a 29-21 lead into the mid-game break.
“I talked about it at halftime. For whatever reason, we don’t play well in the second quarter against Michigan State,” said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. “We survived it. [I said] let’s go out and convert to score, get a stop on defense, and make things happen, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Wisconsin quickly regained momentum. On the Badgers first possession of the second half, Wilson tossed his second touchdown, a 42 yard strike to Jared Abbrederis, to trim Michigan’s State’s lead to 29-28.
B.J Cunningham, who during the game broke Andre Rison’s school record for career receiving yards, caught his third score late in the third quarter to push Michigan State’s lead back to eight.
In the final frame, Wisconsin went back to its workhorse. Montee Ball scored his third touchdown on a five-yard shuffle pass from Wilson. Dan Conroy gave Michigan State a 39-34 lead with a 25-yard field goal with 8:28 to play and then the Badgers put together the drive of their season.
Wisconsin drove 64-yards in eight plays, highlighted by a 36-yard completion on fourth and six from Wilson to Jeff Duckworth. Ball capped the series off with his fourth trip to the end zone from seven yards out.
“That was my only shot really,” Wilson said of the fourth down throw. “I just gave it a shot. I knew he’d come down with it once I put it up in the air. It’s a pretty spectacular play.”
Michigan State had one last chance to take get the ball back, but Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into the kicker on fourth-and-three with under two minutes left, giving Wisconsin a first down and sealing the Badgers second consecutive trip to Pasadena.
“I told them let's go for the block. Obviously not telling to layout on the block punt and not rough them. I don’t know if he hit him,” 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 have won 10 games in back-to-back season, but don’t have a Rose Bowl visit to show for their success. Wisconsin and Ohio State were awarded BCS births last season after sharing the conference title with Michigan State who played Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
At 10-3, the Spartans again appear to be outsiders for shot at BCS game.
“It's tough. It's tough to deal with it, because you're going to replay a lot of things in your mind because you are so close.” said Dantonio. “Thirty-nine points should warrant a victory. But we were playing a good football team with a high-powered offense as well, so, here we go.”
Wisconsin got revenge against the Spartans, now they have another bit of payback on their minds in the Rose Bowl.
The Badgers lost to TCU in last year’s game and are determined to capitalize on this opportunity.
“You prepare so hard. Last season we prepared so hard just to make it there, and then to come up short, man, it was definitely heartbreaking and tough,” said Wisconsin defensive back Aaron Henry. “But to go back to the Rose Bowl and try to cap this thing off right, man, it's a feeling that's going down in history. We're never going to be all of us in the same room at once. It's definitely something special.”