INDIANAPOLIS—A victory in the first-ever Big Ten Championship game was always going to leave a sweet taste. But after the No. 15 Badgers (7-2 Big Ten, 11-2 overall) defeated No. 13 Michigan State (7-2, 10-3) 42-39 on Saturday night, that sweet taste was even sweeter after the events that transpired when the teams last faced off in East Lansing.
For a most of the night, there was an aura of déjà vu. After storming out to a 21-7 first quarter lead, Wisconsin faltered in the second quarter, with the Spartans embarking on a 22-0 run that gave them a 29-21 lead heading into the halftime break.
Michigan State dominated offensively in the first half, picking up 317 yards of total offense and converting four of six third downs, all while not having to punt.
"We feel like we underperformed in the first half of this game defensively," sophomore linebacker Chris Borland said. "The offense kept us in it but we were able to get a few stops in the second half."
The Badgers were able to get the stop they needed on the opening possession.
Once the defense did their part, senior quarterback Russell Wilson took it from there, evading a would-be tackler in the backfield on a third-and-long play, eventually finding junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis wide open in the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown pass that cut the Spartan lead down to just one.
"We brought corner blitz off the edge. We missed them," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "We've got to play coverage down the field and hook up the players in the deep part of the field on the scramble, and we did not do that. The guy was left wide open."
Michigan State responded on their next drive. Michigan State senior quarterback Kirk Cousins hit senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham on a third-and-long situation. Cunningham sprinted past the Badger secondary en route to a 44 yard touchdown catch.
Once again, the Badgers found themselves in a hole heading into the fourth quarter. And once again, they pulled themselves out.
The comeback began early in the fourth. Abbrederis gave the Badgers solid field position with a 44-yard kickoff return and Wilson's offense took advantage. Junior runnning back Montee Ball later received a five-yard shovel pass from Wilson for the score, bringing the Badgers within two. Wisconsin would fail on a two-point conversion attempt.
Wisconsin then forced the Spartans to settle for a field goal and gave the offense a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.
The Badger drive stalled in Michigan State territory and Wisconsin found themselves in a fourth and six situation.
Rushed out of the pocket, Wilson heaved the ball downfield in the vicinity of sophomore receiver Jeff Duckworth and two Spartan defenders. Somehow, the 6-foot Duckworth came down with the ball at the eight-yard line, giving Wisconsin a first-and-goal opportunity with just over four minutes to play.
"I knew Duckworth was running deep back to the back corner, and that was my only shot," Wilson said after the win. "I knew he would come down with it once I put it up in the air, and it was a pretty spectacular play."
"A common saying that we've been using quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is ‘those who are humbled will be exalted and those who are exalted will be humbled'," head coach Bret Bielema said. "That play right there gave justice to everything."
Ball finished things off with a seven-yard touchdown run. Converting the two-point attempt this time, Wisconsin took the 42-39 lead.
Although the game eventually came down to a running-into-the-kicker penalty against Michigan State, the pass to Duckworth will undoubtedly be the defining moment of the Badger comeback.