EAST LANSING, Mich. - The Badgers (4-1) entered Saturday's top-25 showdown with Michigan State (5-0) looking to make a statement in their Big Ten opener. Instead, the message came loud and clear from the Spartans in the fourth quarter.
After trailing 20-10 at halftime, Wisconsin closed the lead to three points on two separate occasions in the second half, but each time Michigan State responded with touchdowns.
The Badgers had a chance to regain control and momentum in the fourth quarter when senior quarterback Scott Tolzien (11-25, 127 yards, 1 TD) found junior tight end Jacob Pederson for a 12-yard touchdown that cut the Spartan lead to 27-24. The much-maligned UW kickoff team pinned Michigan State at it's own 16, but instead of the Badger defense rising to the occasion, MSU put on a clinic in late-game execution.
A systematic 15-play, 84-yard drive that featured three consecutive third down conversions and culminated in a two-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal.
""We thought we had them set up where we wanted them,"" junior free safety Aaron Henry said of the third down situations. ""Every single time they were able to convert.""
To make matters worse, two of those conversions came in long yardage situations. Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins found senior wide receiver Mark Dell (6 rec. 91 yards, 1 TD) for 12 yards on 3rd and 9 early in the drive. Later, on 3rd and 11, Cousins found senior running back Larry Caper on a screen pass for 35 yards.
""It's very frustrating because we're a better defense than that,"" said senior strong safety Jay Valai. ""We have to be able to stop them eventually.""
The execution and balance displayed by the Spartans in their final scoring drive emulated the rest of the game. Michigan State dominated time of possession— 36:24 to 23:36, rolled up 444 total yards of offense, and torched the Badgers on special teams.
After the Badgers scored 10 straight points to take a 10-3 lead in the second quarter, it looked as though they might take full control. However, MSU managed a field goal and a defensive stop. Junior punter Brad Nortman hit a low, line-drive punt that Keshawn Martin ran back 70 mostly untouched yards for a touchdown.
""Special teams can be a great momentum builder and Keshawn Martin made a great play on the ball,"" Valai said.
Wisconsin struggled on offense as well, particularly in the first half. The Badger offense managed just ten points despite benefiting from three Spartan turnovers in the first 30 minutes. They converted just one of seven third downs and managed a paltry 33 yards passing.
Junior running back John Clay had two impressive streaks come to an end as well. The Spartans held the powerful back to 85 yards and did not allow him to reach the endzone. Clay had reached 100 yards and at least one touchdown in each of his last ten games.
""We started slow in the first half and the second half, we started picking up,"" Clay said. ""But by the time we started clicking, the game was over.""
The lone bright spot for the Wisconsin offense came in the continuing emergence of freshman running back James White. In his first Big Ten game, the Florida native did not flinch, as he consistently made Spartan tacklers miss and racked up 99 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
""Whenever I get in there I just try to do my best to make big plays,"" White said.
On his second score, he started left on a stretch play, and cut back all the way to the right sideline before outrunning the Spartan defense to the pylon.
""I peeked to my right and saw a big opening and just said ‘I can make a big play right here' and that's what I did,"" said White.