EAST LANSING, Mich. – As quickly as all the good feelings, vibes and high expectations arrived in Madison, they disappeared even faster in Saturday afternoon’s Big Ten opener at Spartan Stadium.
In a game the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers (4-1, 0-1) knew would be played against a remarkably similar squad in the No. 24 Michigan State Spartans (5-0, 1-0), UW fell 34-24.
Against a MSU team playing its second consecutive game without head coach Mark Dantonio, who suffered a heart attack after the Spartans’ dramatic Sept. 18 win over Notre Dame, Wisconsin suffered letdowns in several critical areas, including third-down defense, red-zone defense and special teams.
“We have had it in our minds all week that MSU is very similar to us,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “But, there are a certain amount of things that we have to take within. If you don’t do what we believe in, and we can’t execute those things we believe in, you are going to have negative results.”
The tough day for Wisconsin was evident in the fourth quarter, as the Badgers scored their last touchdown with 10:53 remaining. Quarterback Scott Tolzien completed a 12-yard pass to backup tight end Jacob Pedersen to leave UW with just a three point deficit.
But after that score, Michigan State put the game away with a dominant 15-play, 84-yard drive that consumed almost eight minutes. The Spartans converted three third downs on the drive. Overall, Michigan State converted 9 of 18 third down chances and two of three fourth down opportunities. Wisconsin, meanwhile, was only 3-of-11 and 0-for-1, respectively. Michigan State scored the final points of the game with 2:43 remaining, as quarterback Kirk Cousins completed a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line pass to B.J. Cunningham
Wisconsin was unable to mount a last-ditch effort to make up the 10-point deficit.
After Michigan State won the toss but elected to defer, Wisconsin struggled right from the start, going three-and-out on its first drive. 10 plays and 33 yards later, the Spartans were on the board first with a 36-yard field goal from Dan Conroy. The Badgers would not get on the board until the second quarter, after an interception by Antonio Fenelus ended an eight-play, 62-yard drive by the Spartans. Eight plays of their own later, the Badgers scored on a 16-yard run by James White.
The true freshman running back was arguably Wisconsin’s best offensive player on the day, running for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
“We came out as an offense and we didn’t execute as well as we thought we would,” White said. “We’re just going to have to come out and practice hard this week and get ready for the next Big Ten game against Minnesota.”
Three plays after White scored, Wisconsin defensive back Niles Brinkley forced a fumble as he stripped Keith Nichol, which safety Aaron Henry recovered. The Badgers only managed seven yards, though, and Phillip Welch increased the lead to 10-3 with a 49-yard field goal. Two minutes later, Conroy was able to connect from 36 yards once again to bring the score to 10-6.
Once Wisconsin produced another three-and-out on the next drive, punter Brad Nortman stepped in. After a false start on UW, Nortman sent a line drive punt to MSU returner Keshawn Martin, who took the ball 74 yards for a touchdown, putting the Spartans ahead 13-10 with 8:11 left in the first half. Despite intercepting MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins near midfield shortly thereafter, Wisconsin was unable to score for the rest of the half.
However, Michigan State proved more effective, as Cousins completed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Mark Dell with 23 seconds left on the clock. As a result, the Spartans entered halftime with a 20-10 lead. Cousins finished the game 20 for 29 with 269 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, and Dell led all receivers with 6 catches for 91 yards.
“I just mishit it,” Nortman said of the punt that Martin returned. “I tried to kick it too hard, didn’t get it up high like I wanted to. Too low for a returner like that.”
After halftime, Wisconsin allowed one first down but then forced Michigan State to punt. Three plays later, White took a handoff from quarterback Scott Tolzien and bounced it to the right side en route to a 34-yard touchdown that brought the Badgers to within three.
On the next drive, the Spartans were able to drive all the way down to the Badgers’ one-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs. Yet, once again, Wisconsin could only muster a three-and-out, which Michigan State took advantage of to extend their lead to 27-17 on a one-yard pass from Cousins to Charlie Gantt.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t play too well fundamentally, and that’s going to get you beat,” UW defensive end J.J. Watt said. “It’s not a thing of we don’t know how to play fundamentally, or we didn’t practice it, it’s just the way the cookie crumbled today. It was a tough day overall.”
UW was outplayed across the board and Bielema noted a number of missed opportunities and mistakes led to an 0-1 start to Big Ten play.
“A lot of times you can’t point it to one specific person or mistake,” Bielema said. “There were enough negative ones today that ended up in a defeat.”