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December 2, 2011
About two weeks ago, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema broke the silence during his traditional Thursday walk with Barry Alvarez, the longtime Badgers coach who preceded him as coach and now is athletic director.
"When do you stop thinking about it?" Bielema asked.
Alvarez laughed, knowing instinctively that Bielema was referring to Michigan State's game-winning 44-yard "Hail Mary" pass, which led to Wisconsin's first loss of the season Oct. 22.
Every coach has losses they can't get over, and Alvarez told Bielema stories about some of his agonizing defeats, dating to his days coaching in high school in Nebraska and Iowa in the 1970s and as an assistant at Notre Dame in the 1980s.
[Viewer's guide: Titles on the line]
The loss that will stick with Bielema is fresher: In East Lansing that night, Wisconsin erased a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter and tied the game on a Russell Wilson-to-Montee Ball touchdown pass with 1:26 left.
But there was too much time left on the clock, enabling Kirk Cousins to heave a pass into the end zone on the final play. The ball bounced off wide receiver B.J. Cunningham into the hands Keith Nichol, who - after video review - was ruled to have pushed the ball over the goal line.
"It's not like it's running through my mind 24 hours a day," Bielema said. "But it was a great highlight on ESPN for three weeks. I swear it was on every commercial."
Bielema and Wisconsin have the rare opportunity to atone for the loss six weeks after the fact in Saturday night's first Big Ten championship game.
The Badgers won't be the only ones seeking redemption in Indianapolis. Last season, Michigan State was one of three Big Ten teams that finished 11-1 and tied atop the Big Ten standings. But the Spartans were shut out of the BCS: Wisconsin earned the Rose Bowl berth and Ohio State was an at-large pick to the Sugar Bowl. The Spartans did nothing to prove they were a team deserving of a BCS slot, though, when they were blasted 49-7 by Alabama in the CapitalOne Bowl.
"With the way the last game went, they're going to be motivated to treat it as a revenge game," Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "And with the way we weren't able to be a part of the Rose Bowl last year, we see it as a chance to make amends for that as well."
Saturday night's winner earns a Rose Bowl berth, with the loser likely heading to the CapitalOne (Wisconsin) or Outback (Michigan State) bowls.
At one point in the season for both teams, the Rose Bowl appeared to be far away.
A week after the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin lost again in the final minute, when Ohio State freshman Braxton Miller erased another Wisconsin fourth-quarter comeback with a 40-yard TD pass with 20 seconds left for a 33-29 stunner. Once a national title contender, Wisconsin fell to 2-2 in the Big Ten with the loss.
"I wanted to make sure everyone know that I had confidence and we had confidence we could keep winning," Wilson said.
Confidence is one thing. Pass defense is another. Wisconsin ranks fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense, and only Alabama and South Carolina allow fewer passing yards per game than the Badgers' 144.5. Yet the most memorable plays of Wisconsin's season are two long passes that led to two losses.
"We've played more complete games," defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "We've given up big plays, which needs to stop. [Since Ohio State], I look at the Illinois game and we stopped them in the second half. We shut out Purdue in the second half, I believe. Penn State got a quick score on us, but after that we shut them out for three quarters."
Michigan State also has had some issues since the win over Wisconsin. The Badgers rushed for 220 yards in the game, and before Cousins' final pass, the Spartans lost a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.
A week after the Wisconsin win, Michigan State didn't handle prosperity well, either. The Spartans lost 24-3 to Nebraska and played a tight game with lowly Minnesota before pulling out a 31-24 win. The victory over Minnesota was the first in Michigan State's current five-game streak.
"Initially, when you have adverse situations, you put your best foot forward and maybe you don't succeed," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "That's maybe what happened in previous years - maybe '07 or '08. We talk about it a lot, so there's no question in my mind that our players can handle the ups-and-downs of the season and ups-and-downs of the games."
Such resolve will be necessary against Wisconsin, which is a 9.5-point favorite. This has become one of the most competitive series in the Big Ten, as four of the past five games have been decided by one score. In some ways, the programs are mirror images: non-traditional Big Ten powers who want to establish the run and play smothering defense.
Now, they're playing for a Big Ten title.
"I love to play them because it's how football is," Michigan State free safety Trenton Robinson said. "We know what they're going to do and they know what we're going to do. They're going to pound that ball and we're going to pound that ball. There's nothing like it."
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