EAST LANSING, MICH. – Any hopes the Wisconsin football team had of playing for a national championship almost certainly ended Saturday night after Michigan State wide receiver Keith Nichol grabbed a miraculous, last-second and bobbled Hail Mary bomb to cap off what will surely go down as an instant classic of Big Ten football.
After a late push to tie the game by No. 6 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1), No. 16 Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) brought down the Badgers, 37-31, on a 44-yard heave from quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Cousins’ pass was initially batted down by UW wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who was put in as a third safety to knock the pass out of the air. But after making contact with Abbrederis, the ball bounced off another player and into the arms of Nichol, who stood a yard away from the goal line.
Replays confirmed that Nichol crossed the plane with the ball as Badger defenders desperately tried to stop him.
“To have the last play of the game decided on by a review, it’s crazy,” linebacker Chris Borland said. “I felt terrible. Just to sit there and watch it on film, it’s heart-wrenching.”
Cousins completed 22 of 31 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns, while wide receiver B.J. Cunningham finished with six receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown. Cunningham also hauled in a two-point conversion after a fourth quarter MSU score.
For Wisconsin, quarterback Russell Wilson went 14-of-21 with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions each. He finished with 223 yards passing and complimented that with an additional 44 on the ground, including a 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Running back Montee Ball, who was briefly sidelined with a head injury, completed the game with 144 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, while Abbrederis led UW with six catches and 91 yards.
The Hail Mary nullified a fourth-quarter comeback by the Badgers, who scored two touchdowns in the final eight minutes of regulation to tie the game at 31-31.
Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson ran for a 22-yard touchdown with 8:10 remaining and, two possessions later, hit running back Montee Ball for a 2-yard score with 1:26 to go.
“The defense did a great job in the second half of getting us the ball back and giving us chances,” Wilson said. “We capitalized on those chances near the end. That’s the main thing. It’s a shocker.”
That gave the Spartans the ball back for the final drive with 1:19 seconds and two timeouts. MSU ultimately completed the drive in nine plays.
But in an effort to regain possession with enough time to score, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema used three timeouts on Michigan State’s final possession. In the end, however, the Badgers never got the ball back, and their timeouts only aided a Spartan offense scrambling for a score, especially on a 3rd-and-8 play with 30 seconds left.
“We were going for the win,” Bielema said. “I looked to their sideline to see if they were going to call one, and I realized they were going to go no-huddle. [We] were trying to get our punt return unit [back on the field].”
But a chance at overtime was ripped away from the Badgers, who spent the entirety of the second half playing catch-up after a dismal second quarter that left UW down 23-14 at the half.
On the ensuing drive that followed an MSU safety, Michigan State’s Keyshawn Martin scored on 34-yard end-around to bring the score to 14-9.
The Spartans then blocked a field goal attempt on the following possession and turned that into an eight-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in a 35-yard pass from Cousins to Cunningham on 4th-and-2.
And then, just 38 seconds before the break, MSU’s Bennie Fowler recovered a blocked punt in the endzone, giving the Spartans a nine-point lead going into the locker room.
In just 13 minutes, Wisconsin saw its 14-0 lead disappear as Michigan State scored 23 straight points without being stopped once on a drive.
“The second quarter is what killed us. We were never really able to rebound from that,” Bielema said.
Those 13 minutes signaled a considerable swing of momentum, as the Badgers reached the goal line twice before the Spartans were even able to run two snaps on offense.
On its opening drive, UW marched 80 yards in 11 plays and 6:18 for the game’s first points: a 9-yard touchdown strike from Wilson to Pedersen.
MSU running back Edwin Baker took the handoff from Cousins on the Spartans’ first play, but UW linebacker Mike Taylor forced a fumble, allowing cornerback Marcus Cromartie to land on it at the Michigan State 30-yard line.
Three plays later, Ball ran through a sizeable hole in the trenches for a 9-yard touchdown.
The makings of another Wisconsin route stopped there, however, as Michigan State was able to ride its momentum swing to an improbable end.
“The only thing you can do is move forward,” Ball said. “That’s the only thing you can do, you don’t want to go back. [Sunday] we’re going to watch film, make sure we correct our mistakes and move forward.
“We have another tough game ahead of us.”