With four seconds left and the game knotted up at 31 a piece, it was surely to be the last play of regulation. Every play that had previously happened in the game had all come down to this.
The play began with Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins lined up in the shotgun, taking the snap from the Wisconsin 44 yard line. Following the snap, Cousins rolled out to his right, buying some time, as his receivers began their mad dash for the end zone where the Wisconsin defenders were waiting for them. Cousins, now standing on his own 45 yard line, was running out of time. With a Wisconsin defender closing in on him, Cousins let it fly.
Over 75,000 in attendance at Spartan Stadium that night held their breath as the ball soared through the October night sky, hopes soaring along with it. At the end of it’s 55 yard flight, the ball grazed the fingertips of a Wisconsin defender, bounced off the facemask of receiver BJ Cunningham and landed right into the hands of Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol, who held on for the catch and a 37-31 Michigan State victory, sending East Lansing into a flurry of excitement.
Six weeks later, these same two teams met again in the inaugural B1G championship game.This time with a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line.
With less than two minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin, faced with a 4th and 3 from their own 26 yard line, was forced to punt, leading the Spartans 42-39.
This was it. This was Michigan State’s chance. This was their chance to drive down the field, win the game and return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.
However, what ensued was every Spartan fan’s worst nightmare. As the Wisconsin punter got the punt away, Spartans fans watched in horror as Keshawn Martin returned the ball inside the Wisconsin five yard line, only to see the play called back on a running into the kicker penalty, which gave Wisconsin a first down and the ability to take a couple of knees, winning the game and taking them to their second consecutive Rose Bowl.
Those two football games last year between the Michigan State Spartans and Wisconsin Badgers were the culmination of what has become quite an interesting series between the two teams over the past few years or so with the last six matchups decided by a total of just 31 points.
This year, the series will continue on Saturday as Michigan State (4-4, 1-3) will travel to Madison to take on Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1) for the first time since that B1G championship game last December. Michigan State comes into this game on a downward spiral as Wisconsin is coming into the game in the drivers seat of the B1G Leaders division with both Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason.
The game will likely shake out with whoever’s running backs shine the brightest. Both teams rely heavily on their run game. Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell is third in the nation with 984 yards while Wisconsin’s Montee Ball is right behind him in fourth with 982. Wisconsin also features another impressive back in James White who ran for 175 yards last week in a win against Minnesota. Ball added 166 of his own as the two combined to rush for a total of 341 yards.
“They’re both outstanding runners,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “James is a smaller back, very explosive. They use him certain ways. Montee Ball, great jump cutter, physical, vertical runner. I’ve lost how many touchdowns he’s had, over 60 in his career. Outstanding football team, outstanding players.”
Coupled with stopping this fierce duo, for Michigan State to win this game, they are going to have to put up some points of their own. Over the course of the entire season, the offense has been sputtering. Michigan State averages just 19.6 ppg, which is ranked 109th in the nation out of 120 Division 1 FBS teams.
This is something that is absolutely going to have to turn around if the Spartans want to go bowling this year. With four games left in the season, they need to win two more in order to become bowl eligible. After the Wisconsin game, Michigan State will return home to take on Nebraska, then after a bye week, they’ll play their final home game against Northwestern and close out the season on the road against Minnesota. Dantonio, though, is taking this one step at a time.
“We focus on the challenge at hand,” Dantonio said. “We look forward. We don’t look back. We continue to try to learn from our mistakes. We go to Wisconsin to win. That’s the only way I know how to take on challenges. You have to take on challenges straight on. You can’t look to the right or the left. You have to look right in front of you. Wisconsin is in front of you. Go play that, deal with the next challenge after that. We can’t look at how are we going to play against Minnesota. We can’t worry about that. We have to worry what’s on our agenda.”
Nevertheless, what’s on the slate this week is a tough game on the road against a tough Wisconsin team, a place the Spartans haven’t won since 2001. But if this game is anything like what these two teams have done in the past when they meet, it is sure to be a fun and exciting game to watch.