INDIANAPOLIS – At halftime of the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wisconsin football team couldn’t help but feel a little incredulous about the situation it found itself in against Michigan State.
In a storyline that paralleled their Oct. 22 meeting with the Spartans, the Badgers had, at one point, held a 21-7 lead in the first quarter. But that quickly dissolved in the following quarter, when MSU scored 22 points to no reply and took a 29-21 lead at halftime.
“That rough patch in the second quarter was disheartening in a way,” guard Kevin Zeitler said. “It’s just like, ‘Really, what’s happening?'”
At the end of October, the Badgers found themselves buried in the Leaders Division standings with a 2-2 conference record but managed to climb past their peers and reach Indianapolis for a rematch with the team that vexed them on a last-second Hail Mary earlier in the season.
Now they were about to let Michigan State ruin that hard work, despite getting off to a 14-point lead. And the trouble was, to Wisconsin, the deficit seemed larger than the one-possession game it actually was.
“Sometimes you’re getting down, you think with the momentum swings, [the deficit] feels a lot bigger than it actually is,” Travis Frederick said, who filled in for Peter Konz at center Saturday. “Eight points is one possession, so it’s not anything out of hand. For us, it was about reminding ourselves it was just a one-possession game.”
After sizzling in the first quarter, Wisconsin fizzled out in the second. The running game disappeared, as the Badgers produced 165 yards in 18 plays during the first quarter and followed that up with minus-four yards on 12 plays in the second.
Playcalling was questionable. Running back Montee Ball, after receiving the ball 13 times for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter, carried the ball three times for two yards in the second.
Meanwhile, the MSU front seven had cracked UW’s offensive line, pressuring quarterback Russell Wilson constantly and sacking him twice.
Wisconsin was also allowing Michigan State to execute in pressure situations, a problem that surfaced in the Badgers’ last two meetings with the Spartans. Of four third-down attempts in the half, MSU converted three.
Even that one missed conversion led to a 30-yard touchdown reception by B.J. Cunningham on the ensuing fourth down. It was the third consecutive game in which Cunningham had scored on a fourth-down play against the Badgers.
In the meantime, Wisconsin went three-and-out on all four of its second-quarter possessions.
“I think this team has a sense of maturity about it and poise,” linebacker Chris Borland said. “Even through those two losses we were down, and then tonight we never got flustered. Our leaders did a great job of rallying us, and no matter how much we were down by or what the stakes were, we understood.”
One of those leaders who spoke up at halftime was defensive lineman and team co-captain Patrick Butrym.
“He’s a great leader for us. He sat up and gave a great speech at halftime, and I think we all really responded well to it,” right tackle Josh Oglesby said, adding that Butrym’s message insisted that the Badgers would not leave the city without a victory.
Although Wisconsin did not completely regain the momentum after leaving the locker room, it certainly began to slow down Michigan State. Wisconsin hardly obtained a statistical advantage in the second half, but stayed within striking distance by winning the battle on third and fourth downs.
Michigan State slowly began to stutter as it converted two of four third-down tries in the third quarter and one of three in the fourth.
In the second half, UW’s offense converted four of its eight third-down attempts, as well as an improbable fourth-down try at a pivotal moment with less than five minutes remaining.
On 4th-and-6 on Michigan State’s 43-yard line and trailing 39-34, Wilson took the snap out of the shotgun and, with a defender leaping in his face, threw across the field to wide receiver Jeff Duckworth.
Duckworth, hardly able to jump for the ball due to a lack of balance, fought off safety Isaiah Lewis to haul in the 36-yard grab, which later set up Ball for the game-winning touchdown.
“A common saying that we’ve been using quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is, ‘Those who are humbled will been exalted, and those who are exalted will be humbled,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “And I thought that play right there gave justice to everything.”
The play is ultimately what gave Wisconsin its 42-39 win and a second consecutive Big Ten title and Rose Bowl birth, but without a renewed team effort in the second half, none of the above would have been possible by that point in the game.
“The offense and what they were able to do, to generate points for us was utterly amazing,” safety Aaron Henry said. “We made those stops when we needed to make them; it was a total, total team effort.”
“Our offense and those guys played a tremendous game today. The way we suffered that first loss, it was definitely devastating, but it feels that much better now that we did win this game.”