In an SEC-style defensive battle where yards quickly turned into a rarefied prize, it only took one mistake to cost the Wisconsin football team its first home defeat in more than three years.
Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) cornerback Darius Hillary couldn’t turn around soon enough when Michigan State (5-4, 2-3) quarterback Andrew Maxwell placed the ball into the hands of junior wide receiver Bennie Fowler on a back-shoulder throw and that was all the Spartans needed to escape Camp Randall with a 16-13 overtime victory Saturday.
In one of its better performances of the year, the UW defense kept Michigan State out of the end zone until Maxwell led them on a 75-yard touchdown drive in the final six minutes of the game. The junior quarterback further dampened an otherwise admirable performance from the secondary, completing eight of his nine attempts for 69 yards on the drive that knotted up the game at 10 with just over a minute on the clock.
“We definitely thought we were going to end it in regulation,” defensive end David Gilbert said. “But those guys battled back, and I knew from watching the film … of Indiana, the way they battled back in that game, what we were in for and we had to keep the pressure on them.”
Wisconsin would gain all of 190 total yards against an MSU defense that entered the game ranked fifth nationally in total defense. But, as players recalled with clear angst following the game, there were more than enough scoring opportunities.
The most difficult came when speedy tailback James White took a direct snap – part of the “Barge” formation the Badgers debuted against Minnesota – for 18 yards around the right edge and into the end zone in the fourth quarter. Yet nothing would come so easy against this Spartans’ defense.
Officials called tight end Sam Arneson, who was blocking along that right edge, for holding and the drive instead ended with a 39-yard field goal from Kyle French to put UW up 10-3.
“They’re a very good defense, and when you catch them out of place you really got to make those plays happen because it may not happen that often,” White said. “When there’s that little hole, we got to get through it and when the receiver’s open we got to make the play.”
As both teams searched for offensive consistency, it was Wisconsin who struck first in the opening minutes of the second quarter on a carefully-threaded pass from quarterback Joel Stave to a wide-open Jacob Pedersen. With barely a defender in sight, a lowered shoulder into a final defender was all the junior tight end needed to hand the Badgers a seven-point lead.
The Spartans answered with a 34-yard field goal – their only points of the half – but each team’s defense only grew fiercer as time dripped off the clock. Even when Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer fumbled a low snap and had a hapless last-second attempt at a punt blocked in the second quarter, Michigan State couldn’t put any points on the board.
After Meyer’s muffed punt, MSU took over at the UW 11-yard line, but penalties and a sack shared by Gilbert and defensive tackle Beau Allen pushed the visiting team out of field goal range. It left defensive players with mixed emotions after they watched their collective effort collapse in a matter of minutes.
“I’ve never been a part of one like this before. I’ve been a part of games where the defense gives up a ton of points and we win the game, and we go back and try to regroup and take some of those big plays away,” free safety Dezmen Southward said. “But I’ve never been a part of a game where we were really in control the whole entire game and just had it taken away.
Tailbacks Montee Ball and James White – who had experienced tremendous success over the last three games – combined for only 62 rushing yards and an average of 2.2 yards per carry. But likely the most severe offensive blow came in the opening seconds of the third quarter, when a powerful hit from Michigan State defensive end William Gholston ended Stave’s season with a broken left collarbone.
Stave had but two incompletions on 11 tries up to that point, almost single-handedly orchestrating a Wisconsin offense that MSU consistently stuffed on the ground.
After taking over for the redshirt freshman, backup quarterback Danny O’Brien went 5-for-11 for 44 yards and both of his passing attempts in overtime were well off the mark.
“To go nine straight weeks and then to be on the verge of getting everything back to where we wanted to be is difficult to swallow,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “But it’s probably a good time for a bye week to get ourselves healthy from an injury standpoint.”
Against an aggressive, physically dominating defense, center Travis Frederick did not shy away from taking much of the blame as the Badgers’ offensive line allowed a season-high five sacks.
Even with the loss, Wisconsin remains the frontrunner to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten Championship game. That didn’t change the fact that the Badgers ultimately lost the reigns of a game they controlled for more than three quarters.
“It’s no secret – we all took a step back today, everyone did,” Ball said. “But I believe that obviously we still have everything in front of us, we’re going to make sure we attack the film, correct the mistakes and keep it moving.”
Extra Points: Wisconsin snapped a 21-game winning streak at Camp Randall Saturday, their most recent loss coming to Iowa in October 2009 … It also marked just the fourth time the Badgers have lost at home in Bielema’s tenure … UW moved to 5-3 in overtime games and the last time it played in an overtime game came in a 34-31 win over Fresno State in 2009 … The 90-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter was Wisconsin’s longest scoring drive of the year.
Follow Ian on Twitter