INDIANAPOLIS – The drama, the wait and the heartbreak are over. The Wisconsin Badgers are the 2011 Big Ten champions.
In a game frighteningly similar to the team’s first matchup Oct. 22, No. 15 Wisconsin (11-2, 6-2) edged out No. 13 Michigan State (10-3, 7-2) 42-39 for the outright Big Ten title.
It was a bruising game, where Michigan State seemed to control every facet possible for a stretch of time, until Wisconsin had its very own Hail Mary-esque play that led to the go-ahead touchdown and a Rose Bowl berth for the second consecutive year.
On 4th-and-6 from the Michigan State 43-yard line, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson scrambled around the backfield until he lobbed up a pass into double coverage. Sophomore wide receiver Jeff Duckworth leaped and grabbed the 36-yard pass on the MSU 7-yard line, rejuvenating the Badger offense and setting up a Montee Ball touchdown for the win.
“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,” Wilson said. “I knew he would come down with it once I put it up in the air, and it was a pretty spectacular play.”
“It’s a great way of improvising,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “One of the great things about Russell Wilson is his ability to make a play last longer. … 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 play right there gave justice to everything.”
Wisconsin ultimately had only 345 total yards compared to Michigan State’s 471. MSU had 190 rushing yards and 281 passing yards, as quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 22 of 30 passes for three touchdowns and one interception.
Wilson – who was awarded the Grange-Griffin Trophy as the game’s most valuable player – had a similar performance, completing 17 of 24 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns. UW finished with 219 passing yards thanks to a 32-yard pass from Ball to Wilson that set up Ball’s first touchdown of the game in the first quarter.
Ball had a brilliant first quarter, gaining 105 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. He averaged 8.1 yards per carry in the first quarter, but MSU’s defense greatly slowed him down for the remainder of the game. While UW had a total of 126 yards rushing, Ball finished with 137 yards on 27 carries and three rushing touchdowns on an average of 5.1 yards per carry.
“[Michigan State is] a really physical team,” Ball said. “They have one of the best run defenses in the nation, so they did a great job of capitalizing on a couple of our runs, but I take everything to heart. So after a couple of runs were stopped, I really took it to heart and told myself I have to make some plays and I really wanted to put the offense on my back.”
When asked if his performance was Heisman Trophy- worthy, Ball humbly said he was thankful for the chance to go to California with his teammates. Senior safety Aaron Henry wasn’t satisfied with the response.
“Montee is a modest young man, you can see,” Henry said, interrupting Ball’s answer. “We faced one of the best-run defenses in the country. For him to have the performance he had tonight, I thought it was stellar. He is a Heisman candidate no matter how you look at it … We’ve got some great finalists, but this guy’s one of the best backs in the country, hands down.”
While the end of the game was a joyous occasion for the team and Badger Nation as a whole, the game in its entirety was a back-and-forth affair.
The Badgers jumped on top quickly as yet another forced fumble from sophomore linebacker Conor O’Neill – recovered by sophomore tight end Jacob Pedersen – set up UW on MSU’s 24-yard line. Two runs later by Ball, the Badgers were up 21-7.
The Badgers would not score again before halftime.
Instead, it was Michigan State who took control of the momentum and the game. Cousins exploited UW’s secondary, passing for 181 yards in the first half and two touchdowns, giving the Spartans a 29-21 lead at the half.
“It was pretty calm,” senior fullback Bradie Ewing said of UW’s locker room at halftime. “We had been in that position before, and guys weren’t flustered. We came out; some different guys said stuff, Coach B said stuff, some of the captains said some things. It’s just all about taking it one play at a time and just going out there and executing. We were prepared, we knew what we had to do. It’s about getting a few yards on first downs and just going. We can’t put ourselves in bad positions and get behind the chains.”
The Badgers proved they could complete a second-half comeback, despite the momentum swings throughout the game.
Even as the Badgers faced punting the ball away on 4th-and-3 on their own 26, it was the Spartans who made the final mistake this time around.
After punter Brad Nortman sent the football down field, Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis ran into Nortman, sending him to the ground. Lewis was called for roughing the kicker and Wisconsin was able to kneel on the ball three times to seal the win.
“There was certainly some contact,” Nortman said. “I wasn’t thinking, before the play, I’m going to take a flop here, but when you’re in the air and a little vulnerable, a little bit extra [acting] doesn’t hurt.”
Regardless, with some luck falling on their side, the Badgers are heading back to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
“Oh my gosh,” Henry said. “It’s a feeling that’s unexplainable.”