Spartans fall 42-39 to Wisconsin for Big Ten title
Trailing by three points in the closing minutes, the Spartans' Keshawn Martin returned a punt to the Wisconsin 3-yard line.
It didn't count because Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis ran into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. The 5-yard penalty gave Wisconsin a first down with 1:37 left, and the Badgers ran out the clock for a 42-39 victory Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten championship game.
''Tough to lose it as we did, but you have to take tough times sometimes,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ''But we'll rise again.''
The Spartans gambled often. They went for it on a fourth down in the second quarter and scored a touchdown on the play, then faked an extra point and scored a two-point conversion to take a 22-21 lead on their next possession.
They took one risk too many, calling for a punt block on the play in which Lewis ran into the punter.
''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.''
The Spartans had to feel good about their chances after forcing the punt, considering the way the regular-season matchup between the teams ended. Keith Nichol scored on a Hail Mary pass as time expired to give Michigan State a 37-31 victory.
The Badgers turned the tables on Michigan State (10-3) this time.
''Both were great games, possibly the two best games of the college football season, period,'' Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said. ''One went our way, one didn't. Obviously, would have liked this one to go our way.''
Wisconsin (11-2) now heads to the Rose Bowl where it will face Pac-12 champion Oregon on Jan. 2.
Montee Ball scored four touchdowns, including a 7-yard score with 3:45 left, giving the 15th-ranked Badgers the come-from-behind victory over No. 11 Michigan State.
Ball was spectacular early, topping 100 yards in the first quarter, and efficient late, scoring twice in the fourth quarter to rally the Badgers. His 38 TDs this season are one short of Barry Sanders' FBS mark (39).
But Russell Wilson was named the game's MVP after going 17 of 24 for 187 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Wilson also broke an NCAA record by throwing a TD pass on the Badgers' opening possession, giving Wilson 37 consecutive games with a TD pass, one more than Graham Harrell's previous mark at Texas Tech.
The loss ruined a pregame prediction by Dantonio that his team would win and earn the Rose Bowl bid.
Only one of Cousins' 17 first-half passes hit the ground, and he wound up 22 of 30 for 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
But it was his ability to fool the normally stout Badgers' defense that nearly got the Spartans to Pasadena, Calif.
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, Nichol 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.
After playing conventional football for most of the next two quarters and still leading 36-34, 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 a 7-yard TD, his fourth score of the night Wilson scrambled again on the conversion, finding Jacob Pedersen to give Wisconsin a 42-39 lead.
Martin had a career high nine receptions for 115 yards, the second 100-yard game of his career.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap