Rematch not rosy for MSU

INDIANAPOLIS — They will say it today and tomorrow and next week. They will say it to each other and to themselves, and probably to those who ask. They will say it at their 10-year reunion and their 40-year reunion, at weddings and funerals and when they run into each other at random times in random towns.

The Michigan State Spartans will forever believe they were the best team in the Big Ten in 2011.

They will say they should have gone to the Rose Bowl.

But they aren’t going. Wisconsin is.

And the Spartans can replay Saturday night’s game a thousand times, in their film rooms and in their heads, and it won’t change their minds. They will always believe in themselves. But they can’t change the final score:

Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39, in the inaugural Big Ten championship game.

“Wisconsin played a great game,” MSU receiver B.J. Cunningham said. “Hats off to them. I feel like we’re a better team than them.”

Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who normally answers questions in paragraphs, was reduced to sentence fragments: “Came close two years in a row. It’s tough.”

What else could they say? What else could they think?

How close was this? With less than 2 minutes left, Michigan State returner Keshawn Martin raced down the field, inside the Badgers’ 5-yard line, to set up the winning touchdown … but it was negated by a penalty. Isaiah Lewis ran into the punter. He didn’t even rough him. But he did run into him.

Could there be a more heartbreaking way to lose? What would it be? Dropping a pass in the end zone? A kick bouncing off the upright? Watching the band run onto the field too early? Oversleeping?

Cousins said he didn’t think it merited a flag and coach Mark Dantonio said he thought the punter flopped. I understand why they said that. But punters are coached to flop. And it was the correct call. Nobody likes to see a game decided like that, but it was a penalty. As Dantonio said, “That’s part of life.”

Cousins also said “There was no one play that lost this football game. We don’t think Isiah needs to be singled out.”

He is right.

The fact is that Michigan State led, 39-34, late in the fourth quarter, could have led by more. And on a few critical plays in the final minutes, either the Badgers did something brilliant, the Spartans made a mistake, or Wisconsin got a bit lucky. Or all three at once.

On a fourth-and-6 on the MSU 43, Wisconsin senior quarterback Russell Wilson bought time, bought more time, then heaved the ball to receiver Jeff Duckworth. Two Spartans were there. Neither made the play. Duckworth caught a 36-yard pass. On the next play, Wisconsin took the lead.

On MSU’s next drive, Cousins rolled to his left on third and eight. More sentence fragments: “Thought about running. Possibly could have run for the first down. I’ll have to see the film. Keshawn opened up. Game of inches.”

Cousins fired a high, hard pass to Keshawn Martin, who made a spectacular catch and either got enough of his foot on the green field or landed on the white sideline. The on-field official went green, the replay official went white. Fourth down.

Dantonio punted.

One of his reasons: MSU had time to get the ball back. But after forcing Wisconsin to punt, Dantonio called for a punt block, even though Martin is one of the best returners in school history. One of his reasons: there were less than 2 minutes left.

Punting made sense (and worked – MSU would have gotten the ball back). Calling for the punt block carried a risk of penalty, and Lewis committed one. Part of life.

The Spartans (10-3) have every reason to believe they were the best team in the Big Ten this season – and the best team in Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night. The fact is that in the final minutes, there was no perceptible difference between the Spartans and Badgers. It was going to come down to whoever made one more play. Or as it turned out: whoever almost made one more play.

“I feel extremely bad for our seniors,” Dantonio said. “we put a lot into this and they had very high hopes.”

The first matchup between these two teams was a classic – MSU won on a last-play Hail Mary. This game was actually better. It was filled with great plays by great players, and it should quiet anybody who says Big Ten football is boring.

The Spartans were so close to the goal Dantonio set, and they have to console themselves with this: They are the team that he envisioned. The Spartans almost won with old-school defense, classic Big Ten toughness, a bruising running back (Le’Veon Bell) and maybe the best pitch-and-catch combo in school history.

The box score shows that Cousins hit Cunningham for three touchdowns, though Nichol might file a complaint about that. Nichol caught a pass from Cousins and astutely flipped the ball to Cunningham, who dove in for a touchdown. MSU faked the extra point and scored, and it looked and felt like this would be Michigan State’s night.

Instead, Wisconsin somehow won, just as MSU somehow won in East Lansing. The bitter truth for MSU is that if the order of those games had been reversed, the Spartans would be heading to the Rose Bowl. Michigan State would have won its division even if it had lost to the Badgers in October. It will haunt them for years, because deep down, they will always believe they were the Big Ten’s best team.

Cousins called the two MSU-Wisconsin games “possibly the two best games of the college football season, period.”

Then he said simply: “One went our way. One didn’t.” It was another short response from one of the most eloquent players in college football. Can’t fault him. Brutal night. How did Michigan State miss out on a Rose Bowl bid? As the media peppered the Spartans with questions, all they really wanted was an answer that will never come.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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