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October 23, 2011

Best game ever, man

So much to say about this one.

    I'm calling it the most dramatic game in this stadium's history -- though 2001 U-M, 1974 OSU and 2010 ND give it a run. Please accept this game story for now, with much more combing through this to come  -- even though MSU at Nebraska (noon on ESPN, we just found out) is coming right up to finish the Quartet of Doom.

  Key play
Yes, yes, the Hail Mary to win it is the obvious choice, but what about the crafty call from MSU offensive coordinator Dan Roushar to set it up? After two Wisconsin timeouts, MSU had a third-and-8 from its 36 with 30 seconds left. The Spartans went with a shovel pass to Keshawn Martin into a gaping hole in the middle of the field. He got 11 yards to set up the dramatic victory.


Unsung hero
Senior tight end Brian Linthicum has not been used as much as expected this season, but he had a pair of key catches – one for 25 yards and one for 24 – on first-half drives, both of which resulted in touchdowns. Both came on first-down play-action passes, and both drives were crucial in getting the Spartans back into the contest.

Quotable
“I knew once it went to review it was gonna be a touchdown. It was an incredible moment, really.”
MSU receiver Keith Nichol on his game-winning 44-yard catch

What’s next
The Spartans complete the most difficult four-game stretch in memory by traveling to No. Nebraska on Saturday in the game that could decide the Legends Division title. The winner will be up in the standings and own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Cornhuskers are 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten after Saturday’s 41-14 romp at lowly Minnesota.



Joe Rexrode
jrexrode@lsj.com

    EAST LANSING – If there have been scenes at Spartan Stadium like the one that greeted the Michigan State Spartans at the end of the first half Saturday night, there haven’t been many of them.
    The closest thing to it may have been the end of rock giant U2’s concert here on June 28, with an entire arena standing, roaring and begging for more.
The Spartans took in all the love while heading to their locker room – after a safety, blocked field goal, blocked punt, double-reverse for a touchdown and fourth-down pass for a touchdown turned a 14-0 deficit into a 23-14 lead over No. 4 Wisconsin – and almost looked like they might come right back out for an encore.
They had no idea what they were about to witness.
If there’s ever been a more dramatic game at Spartan Stadium, name it. MSU built a 31-17 lead in the fourth quarter, watched Russell Wilson lead the Badgers back to tie it – then got a 44-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol on the final play to win it.
“Exciting times,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said.
“An incredible moment, really,” Nichol said.
The play was originally ruled down inches from the goal line, but the replay official quickly overturned that ruling and said Nichol crossed the goal line, giving the No. 15 Spartans a 37-31 upset and setting off a wild celebration on the field and in the stands – one that made the halftime outpouring look like polite clapping.
The pass bounced off MSU’s B.J. Cunningham and into Nichol’s waiting arms, capping a nine-play, 78-yard drive in the final 1:19 to win it in improbable fashion. The drive was aided by two Wisconsin timeouts, with Bret Bielema looking to get the ball back when MSU had it deep in its own end.
“I’ve never been part of something like that,” Bielema said.
The Spartans improve to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten – winning their fourth straight at home over the Badgers (6-1, 2-1), who dominated early, were on the verge of being routed early in the fourth quarter, then responded with two late touchdowns to set up the unforgettable final moment.
MSU is now 3-0 in its brutal October stretch, beating Ohio State, Michigan and the Badgers. A win next week at Nebraska would make MSU the clear favorite to win the new Legends Division and advance to the first Big Ten football championship game, Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin, still the favorite in the Leaders Division, would love to get a chance for revenge there.
Cousins had perhaps the best game of his career (22 of 31, 290 yards, three touchdowns) and became MSU’s all-time winningest quarterback in the process with his 22nd win. He also stole the spotlight from Wilson, the N.C. State transfer who entered the game as a top Heisman candidate.
“First of all, you’re a class act,” Cousins recalled of his post-game conversation with Wilson (14 of 21, 223 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions). “But second of all, I think you guys will be there in December (in Indianapolis) and we hope to be there with you.”
But for a sliver of red in the north end zone, the crowd of 76,405 basked in the delirium of the finish and victory.
ESPN was there to broadcast it, after the experts on its popular “College GameDay” show – stationed Saturday on MSU’s Munn Field -- gave the Spartans very little chance to hang with the Badgers.
They looked wise early, then way off when the Spartans appeared to be running away with the game early in the fourth.
But Wisconsin responded to help deliver perhaps the game of the year in college football.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words a little bit,” said MSU’s Keshawn Martin, who ran in a double-reverse for a touchdown in the first half and put MSU up two touchdowns with a catch-and-run early in the fourth quarter.
B.J. Cunningham had six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown, along with a 2-point conversion. Le’Veon Bell led MSU on the ground with 87 yards.
Wisconsin outgained MSU 443 to 399, but the Spartans won the turnover battle 2-1 – and committed zero penalties a week after committing six personal fouls in the win over U-M.
One of those resulted in the suspension of sophomore defensive end Will Gholston for Saturday’s game, and Dantonio said he thought MSU had “been under attack a little bit I thought this week,” Dantonio said.
Late Saturday night, it was a siege of fans looking to celebrate after a play Cousins said is called “Rocket.” It managed to trump last season’s fake field goal dubbed “Little Giants” to beat Notre Dame in overtime.
“Where do you go from there?” Dantonio asked.

Wisconsin won the toss, elected to receive and immediately showed why. The Badgers were clinical in an 80-yard opening drive, taking 11 plays – eight of them runs – and 6 minutes, 12 seconds to score a touchdown.
    Wilson capped it on the only third down of the drive (third-and-4 from the MSU 9) by faking a handoff, rolling left and throwing back right to a wide-open tight end Jacob Pederson in the end zone.
    Pressure was on the MSU offense. So on the first play, Edwin Baker was hit and fumbled it away at the MSU 30.
    Three plays later, Montee Ball (115 yards) blasted through the MSU defense for an easy 9-yard touchdown, and cranked-up Spartan Stadium had become eerily quiet Spartan Stadium.
    MSU got a couple first downs before punting on the next drive, and then came the play the Spartans needed to return to life. On second-and-11 from his own 49, Wilson dropped back and tried to find Nick Toon deep down the middle of the field.
    The ball was overthrown and Trenton Robinson picked it off, getting it back to the MSU 25. Life returned to the stadium as well.
    MSU didn’t score off the turnover, but it changed field position. And then Wilson made another mistake – throwing to no one with Denicos Allen about to sack him in his own end zone.
    Officials flagged Wilson for intentional grounding, which gave MSU two points for a safety.
    The Spartans got the ensuing kick at their 28 and needed just four plays to go 72 yards. A 25-yard Cousins dart to Brian Linthicum was immediately followed by a 34-yard Martin run on a double reverse – with Martin just getting a pitch from Cunningham in time and then sprinting the other way for an easy score.
    It was 14-9 Badgers with 11:22 left in the second quarter, and that raucous crowd was all the way back.
    Wilson responded, though, driving Wisconsin to the MSU 13. But on fourth-and-1 from there, Wisconsin elected to kick and Darqueze Dennard blocked the field-goal try to give MSU the ball back.
    MSU’s offense responded. Facing a fourth-and-2 at the Wisconsin 35, Cousins found Cunningham in the middle of the field, and he broke a tackle and raced to the end zone to make it 16-14 Spartans.
    MSU wasn’t done. After a stop, Kyler Elsworth raced in to block a punt and  Fowler got it in the end zone amid a pile of bodies. That made it 23-14 and MSU left to a loud standing ovation.
    The defenses took over in the third quarter, with the Badgers tightening up and getting a field goal to get within six points.
    Then came the MSU drive of the season. The Spartans went 80 yards in 13 plays, chewing up 7 minutes and 24 seconds, to take a two-touchdown lead.
    Cousins capped the drive by hitting Martin in the middle of the field on third-and-10 from the Wisconsin 15. Martin zipped outside, got a block from Keith Nichol and sprinted into the end zone.
    A fade to B.J. Cunningham in the back of the end zone then gave MSU the 2-point conversion it needed. It was 31-17 Spartans with 10:58 left in the game.
    The Badgers weren’t finished, though. A big punt return set Wisconsin up at MSU’s 44, and it took just two plays to score from there. Wilson ran it in from 22 yards out after taking off on a scramble.
    MSU’s offense bogged down, Wilson threw a pick to Isaiah Lewis on a bomb attempt, but MSU bogged down again.
    That set up the drive of the game. Wisconsin started at its 13 with 4:28 left. Wilson got two huge completions – a 15-yard gain on third-and-9, then a 44-yard heave to Toon on first-and-20.
    He capped the drive with a 2-yard flip to Ball, tying the game at 31 with 1:26 remaining.
    MSU got it at its 22 with 1:19 left and got a first down, but Cousins then fumbled on a scramble and left tackle Dan France saved disaster by jumping on it at the MSU 24.
    MSU recovered, though, getting a huge third-and-8 on a shovel pass to Martin after Wisconsin had called two timeouts.
    Cousins and Linthicum just missed on a pass inside the Wisconsin 30 that would have set up a game-winning field goal try with four seconds left.  That set up a moment that gains immediate entry into the Spartan Stadium Hall of Fame.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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