The good thing is I predicted a shootout in last night’s Big 10/12 conference title game between (AP) 11th-ranked Michigan St. and 15th-ranked Wisconsin, 38-35, in favor of the Spartans. Well, there was a shootout. Unfortunately, Wisconsin came out on top in by far the best conference championship game of the 2011 college season, 42-39.
Sparty and Wisconsin traded scores in the first half of the first quarter before Badgers RB Montee Ball scored two 6-yard TD runs, the second coming after Wisconsin recovered a Nick Hill fumble on a kickoff return. Ball finished the first quarter with 13 carries, 105 yards and 2 TDs as Wisconsin took a 21-7 lead.
In the second quarter, it was all Sparty. Their defense took over, forcing the Badgers into 3 and outs on all 4 of their possessions, as Wisconsin amassed negative 4 yards of total offense. The Badgers D wasn’t much better, as Sparty scored 22 unanswered points and piled up 208 yards of total offense. QB Kirk Cousins finished off a 7-play, 80-yard drive with a 30-yard TD pass to WR B.J. Cunningham on fourth-and-1. On their next drive, on 1st and goal from Wisconsin’s 10 yard line, Cousins completed a 3-yard pass to WR Keith Nichols, who then lateraled to Cunningham, who took it in the remaining 7 yards for the score. On the extra point attempt, Dantonio reached into his bag of tricks once again and called for the fake. Holder and senior WR Brad Sonntag, who has only 6 catches for 44 yards in his entire career, took the snap and ran off right tackle for the two-point conversion to put Sparty up 22-21. An 8-play, 84-yard drive ending with a 6-yard Le’Veon Bell TD run capped off the quarter’s scoring, and Sparty went into halftime, leading 29-21.
A Jared Abbrederis 42-yard TD catch brought Wisconsin within one in the third quarter. It seemed as if the Badgers had regained momentum until Sparty finished a short 3-play, 54-yard drive with a TD of their own, a 44-yard scoring grab by Cunningham extended Sparty’s lead to 8 once again.
A long Abbrederis return on the ensuing kickoff gave Wisconsin great field position before the end of the third quarter, and it led to a TD drive of their own early in the fourth. Montee Ball scored his third TD of the day, this time on a 5-yard TD catch. Wisconsin’s two-point conversion attempt failed, and the Badgers kicked off down by 2. A 25-yard Dan Conroy field goal put Sparty ahead by 5, and it appeared that although a 5-point deficit 8:28 to play is certainly not a death sentence, MSU would manage to hold on. Of course, this would not be the case.
Yet another long Abbrederis kickoff return gave the Badgers good field position, and Russell Wilson and Montee Ball set up shop at their 33. After converting a third and short early in the drive, Wisconsin was faced with a fourth-and-6 from Sparty’s 43-yard line. Wilson scrambled a bit and heaved a prayer in the general direction of a teammate and two Spartan defenders. Unbelievably, WR Jeff Duckworth came down with the ball, and Wisconsin would have four chances to score from Sparty’s 7. On the first play from goal, Montee Ball scored his fourth TD of the game, and tied the NCAA single-season record for TDs with 38. One two-point conversion later, and the Badgers went ahead for the first time since the first quarter, 42-39.
Some backwards play-calling sort of doomed Sparty, as Cousins threw an incomplete pass on first down and Le’Veon Bell rushed for only 2 yards on second. After Cousins missed target Martin to bring up fourth down with about 3 minutes to play, Dantonio banked on his defense to get the ball back and punted away.
It seemed like a smart decision…at first. After using its final 2 timeouts, Sparty stopped Montee Ball on third down to bring up fourth-and-5. Wisconsin punted, and Martin returned it to inside of Wisconsin’s 10-yard line. It seemed as if Sparty would do it to Wisconsin again; steal a win away. However, there was a penalty flag thrown on the play. For some odd reason, the Spartans went for the block and second-team Big 10/12 safety Isaiah Lewis ran into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Granted, Nortman did a bit of shabby acting, but it was clearly a penalty. Victory formation for Wisconsin. Wisconsin is headed to Pasadena, California. Sparty is headed to Tampa, Florida.
In Tampa, Michigan State will play the 14th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the Outback Bowl. Georgia, who fell to top-ranked LSU in the SEC title game, 42-10, had a somewhat impressive season after losing its first two games of the season to Boise State and South Carolina. Your 10-win season is only somewhat impressive when you win 10 straight against cupcakes and a down Auburn and Florida team, but since Georgia plays in the SEC, they’re automatically world-beaters. The Bulldogs were thoroughly dominated by the Tigers in the Georgia Dome, but will certainly play better against Sparty in this second-tier bowl game. I’m sure Dantonio’s crew will be more than smarting after missing out on a trip to its first Rose Bowl since 1988 by a mere 3 points. This seems like a fairly equal matchup, although I have a feeling that the outcome won’t show as much. Alas…
GO GREEN. GO WHITE.