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October 23, 2011

Heartbreak in East Lansing

EAST LANSING - From a historical standpoint Saturday's spectacular, shocking, unfortunate and scintillating finish inside Spartan Stadium is going to be a mainstay in the annals of college football.

From a Wisconsin perspective, it's going to provide endless nightmares, what-ifs and gut-wrenching despair.

Michigan State senior quarterback Kirk Cousins bombed a 44-yard pass that was tipped, deflected, redirected, caught and eventually stretched across the goal line to end what looked to be a 31-31 game featuring the Big Ten's top two teams that was headed to overtime.

"This will sting," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "They will carry this memory with them for the rest of their life.

"And it's going to be difficult."

Football really is a game of inches.

Instead of falling harmlessly to the ground like 99 percent of 'Hail Mary' desperation heaves do, the ball landed seamlessly into the hands of MSU receiver Keith Nichol.

The senior quarterback turned wide receiver out-muscled a trio of Badger defenders and snuck the tip of the ball past the goal line to stun Wisconsin 37-31 on a picture perfect evening for Big Ten football.

"We let one get away," senior free safety Aaron Henry said.

Henry, along with Jared Abbrederis and Shelton Johnson lined up near the goal line to start the final play. As the ball soared towards the end zone Abbrederis seemed to have a bead on the ball.

Abbrederis claimed to have deflected the ball as it came down, but it continued to sail over his outstretched hands before bouncing off the facemask of Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham and into the hands of Nichol, who took care of the rest.

"I swear I thought I got the ball across," Nichol said of his only catch. "I knew once they went to review it that it was going to be a touchdown. Incredible game and incredible effort by both sides.

"Incredibly moment, really."

Two officials on top of the play originally ruled the play down at the one-yard line. But upon further review the play was overturned and the throng of green and white players anxiously awaiting that decision rushed the field in unbridled joy and excitement.

Wisconsin, looking absolutely shocked as one would only expect, had to walk off the Spartan Stadium field losers for the third time in the Bret Bielema era. UW still hasn't won in East Lansing since the 2002 season.

"I never even saw the play," Bielema said. "They didn't show it and I wasn't watching. I was talking to our captains. We were playing victory defense so I slipped over to the offense.

"I think the guy that caught the ball ran out of bounds but he wasn't the first to touch it, so that makes it a legal catch."

Senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus admitted shortly after the game that Nichol went out of bounds willingly. But since the ball bounced off the facemask of Cunningham he was legally able to touch the ball.

Right spot. Right time.

"We put three safeties back," Bielema explained. "Dezmen Southward was down and Abbrederis had ran that before."

Following Montee Ball's second score of the game, a two-yard reception from Russell Wilson, Michigan State started its game-winning drive on its own 22-yard line with 79 seconds left to play.

Cousins completed a pass to running back Le'Veon Bell for three yards to start it.

The second down pass went incomplete to Nichol setting up third and seven with less than a minute to play. There, Cousins completely a nifty shovel pass to Bell for nine yards granting the Spartans a first down.

Brendan Kelly sacked Cousins on the ensuing play. As he was going to the turf the ball squirted free. It seemed as though a Michigan State lineman pounced on the ball but when it slipped out it looked as though the Badgers had a play on the loose ball.

Instead, in what turned out to be one of the key plays of the game, Dan France corralled the ball and gave MSU new life.

Bielema used the loss of yardage as an opportunity to call timeout.

Cousins then completed a 12-yard pass to Cunningham, setting up a third and eight situation. Bielema called yet another timeout, this time with 30 seconds to play.

As he did a season ago when MSU beat Wisconsin and as he did several times Saturday night, Cousins converted another huge third down by delivering an 11-yard strike to Keshawn Martin.

One more nine-yard pass play to Bell set up the final dramatics.

"That is why you play until the end of the game," MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said. "You just keep playing. You never know when it's going to come to fruition.

"By the grace of God it did."

Wisconsin opened the game with a quick 14 points. Effectively taking the raucous crowd out of the game, the Badgers had an opportunity to widen its lead to three scores but a Russell Wilson interception gave Michigan State new life. The senior signal caller finished the game 14-of-21 for 223 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Though the Badger defense held Cousins and company in check on the ensuing drive, Spartans punter Mike Sadler pinned the Badgers on the five-yard line. Riding that wave of momentum, MSU's stud defensive tackle Jerel Worthy stuffed Ball in the Badger backfield for a two-yard loss. Ball finished the game with 18 carries for 115 yards, one touchdown rushing and one touchdown receiving.

Wilson, on the next play, was nailed for intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety when he frantically threw the ball away instead of taking the sack.

That opened the floodgates for Michigan State.

The Spartans stole momentum from Wisconsin, scored a touchdown on a double reverse, blocked a Philip Welch field goal, scored a touchdown on fourth down and then scored for the third time in the second quarter after blocking a Brad Nortman punt and falling on the ball in the Badger end zone.

Wisconsin rallied in the second half, but fell on the wrong side of one of the more ridiculous finishes any game in the landscape of college football will see in 2011.

"Sometimes you're the team that has the miracle," UW junior center Peter Konz said. "Sometimes you're the team that has the miracle happen on you. That's just the way sports are.

"We've played the game long enough to be mature about this, move forward and get better."


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