Wisconsin got the late touchdown it needed, the late stop it needed and the big break it needed Saturday night.
Otherwise, the inaugural Big Ten championship game may have ended the same way the Badgers’ first round with Michigan State did.
Montee Ball scored four touchdowns, the last coming on a 7-yard run with 3:45 left, and the Badgers used a running into the kicker penalty to kill the clock as No. 15 Wisconsin hung on to beat No. 11 Michigan State 42-39 and earn a second straight Rose Bowl bid.
”It makes it twice as nice,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema told the crowd after hoisting the trophy. ”They came out today, they weren’t going to be denied, and to do it here, first time ever – Big Ten champs, twice!”
Yes, the Badgers (11-2) were ready to party when streamers started covering the field. Some players walked into the postgame news conference carrying roses. Quarterback Russell Wilson, the game’s MVP, tucked the rose behind his ear.
Next up for Wisconsin is Pac-12 champion Oregon, which beat UCLA in its conference title game Friday night.
But the Badgers almost didn’t make it.
After losing on a deflected Hail Mary pass in October in East Lansing, the Spartans (10-3) looked as if they might pull off another miracle comeback Saturday night when they forced what appeared to be a three-and-out with less than two minutes to go.
Coach Mark Dantonio called for a punt block, but instead of getting the ball or taking advantage of Keshawn Martin’s return inside the Wisconsin 10-yard line, Isaiah Lewis hit punter Brad Nortman. The 5-yard penalty gave Wisconsin the ball with Michigan State out of timeouts.
”I don’t know if he hit him,” Dantonio said. ”You probably have seen all the replays, but he threw the flag. I thought he flopped a little bit.”
It’s the second straight year, Michigan State and Wisconsin have been in the Rose Bowl hunt at season’s end.
The Badgers got the invite last year based on a tiebreaker. This year, they took the undisputed title thanks primarily to their two offensive leaders – Ball and Wilson.
Ball was his usually spectacular self early and efficient late. He ran for more than 100 yards and scored on two 6-yard TD runs in the first quarter. He scored two more times in the final 13 1/2 minutes — once on a 5-yard shovel pass and the other a 7-yard TD run that gave Wisconsin a 40-39 lead. A conversion pass from Wilson to Jacob Pedersen made it 42-39 with 3:45 left.
Ball finished with 27 carries for 137 yards and three scores, and his four TDs put him within one of breaking Barry Sanders’ FBS mark (39) as he tried to impress the Heisman voters.
Wilson was nearly as good. He was 17 of 24 for 187 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and broke the NCAA record by throwing a TD pass in his 37th consecutive game. Graham Harrell of Texas Tech held the previous mark (36).
”This is one of the reasons I came here,” Wilson said of the Rose Bowl ticket.
The loss not only extended Michigan State’s Rose Bowl drought, it hasn’t gone since 1988, and ruined Dantonio’s pregame prediction. In an interview taped Friday, Dantonio told a local radio station that the Spartans would win the game and go to the Rose Bowl.
He and the Spartans tried everything to make that happen.
The Spartans ran a fourth-down pass play, called a fake extra point and even got an impromptu lateral for a score – and that was just in the first half. Kirk Cousins made most of it work. Only one of his 17 first-half passes hit the ground in the first half, and he wound up 22 of 30 for 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
But it was Cousins’ ability to fool the normally stout Badgers’ defense that nearly won the game.
On fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, he got Wisconsin to bite on a fake pitch and hooked up with a wide open B.J. Cunningham for a 30-yard TD pass to cut the deficit to 21-14.
On its next possession, Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol, who wrestled the Hail Mary pass across the goal line to beat Wisconsin in October, beat the Badgers again. This time, he caught a short pass from Cousins and just before stepping out of bounds lateraled to Cunningham, who ran the final 4 yards for a TD. Michigan State then called for a fake extra point that Brad Sontag ran in to make it 22-21.
”We felt we were having our way offensively the whole game,” Cousins said. ”We never felt like it was won. But we felt like we had our way offensively.”
Even after playing more conventional football for most of the next two quarters and taking a 36-34 lead, the Spartans lined up two different players in the Wildcat formation, ran a reverse and drove for a 25-yard field goal to make it 39-34 with 8:31 left in the game.
But just like the first meeting, the Badgers answered.
Wilson led Wisconsin on an eight-play, 64-yard scoring march, converting a fourth-and-6 when Wilson scrambled, threw back across the field and Jeff Duckworth made a spectacular adjustment to haul in a 36-yard pass. On the next play, Ball burst up the middle for the 7-yard TD to give the Badgers the lead.
This time, the Wisconsin defense stiffened and after a replay review overturned a third-down play that would have gone for a first down, the Spartans punted for only the third time in the game.
They never got another chance.
”It’s tough,” Cousins said. ”We came close two years in a row. We don’t get to go, it’s tough.”
Michigan State’s Martin had a career-high nine receptions for 115 yards, the second 100-yard game of his career.