EAST LANSING - Wisconsin had seemingly weathered the storm early in Saturday's Big Ten opener against Michigan State, a team that was riding an emotional wave considering Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio suffered an unfortunate setback in his recovery from a heart attack earlier Saturday morning.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, the skies were only a few short plays from opening up and raining on their conference opener parade, one UW would eventually lose 34-24.
Holding a 10-6 lead early in the second quarter, junior punter Brad Nortman trotted out to the field for a punt with a stiff breeze at his back. Though he meant to get it in the air, Nortman ripped a 46-yard line drive directly at the chest of Keshawn Martin and the junior sprinted through an open lane in the middle of the field and didn't look back.
Seventy-four yards later, the Spartans held a 13-10 lead, one they wouldn't relinquish the remainder of the game.
"I just miss hit it," Nortman said. "I was going with the wind that time and I tried to kick it too hard. I didn't get it as high as I wanted to and it was too low. It was too low for a returner like that.
"He made us pay."
It was just another blunder from a special teams unit that has struggled throughout the early stages of the 2010 season. But it wasn't just special teams that cost the Badgers an opportunity to kick off the conference season on a high note.
It was also an inconsistent offense and a defense that couldn't get off the field when it mattered most.
Even though the unit forced three turnovers in the first half, the offense couldn't muster any sort of momentum and entered the locker room down 20-10.
"I'm just guessing, but I'm sure my completion percentage was way down there," UW senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, who finished 11-of-25 for 127 yards and a touchdown, said. "We didn't really get into a rhythm in the passing game. It's frustrating for me just because I pride myself on being efficient in the passing game.
"No one is pleased with how we played today."
Following an unimpressive start to the game, it seemed the Badgers corrected their misdoings to start the half as the defense logged back-to-back sacks to force an MSU three-and-out on its first drive of the half.
Then freshman James White (98 yards, two touchdowns) capped a three-play, 47-yard touchdown drive with a 34-yard scamper.
Looking to snag the momentum from the home Spartans, the Badger defense took the field hoping for another three-and-out. Instead, MSU marched down the field and into the Badger red zone.
After pushing the ball inside the UW 10 yard line, the defense stiffened and completed a goal line stand that gave the ball back to the offense with a chance to either tie or take the lead.
Instead, the offense struggled to a quick three and out after moving the ball timidly to its own eight yard line.
Following a 43-yard Nortman punt, Michigan State took over at on its own 49 yard line and capped a six-play, 51 yard drive with a one-yard Charlie Gantt touchdown reception on third and one from the one yard line.
The score gave the Spartans another 10-point edge.
But Wisconsin proved resilient again and cut the lead to three following a Jacob Pedersen touchdown reception with more than 10 minutes remaining in the contest.
That's when Michigan State ripped the hearts out of Wisconsin with a 15-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock.
To make matters worse, the Spartans continued the drives with third down conversions of nine, 11 and five yards. MSU also scored a touchdown on another fourth and goal from the UW one.
"It was very frustrating," Valai said of Michigan State's crucial drive. "We're a better defense than that. We've got to be able to stop them eventually. Once again it comes down to fourth and one. That's probably the toughest thing in the world when they scored a touchdown."
Offensively, UW struggled to generate any sort of momentum throughout the majority of the game. John Clay, who entered the game with a 10-game, 100-yard streak, saw that streak snap and finished with 80 yards rushing on 17 carries.
Lance Kendricks logged only three receptions for 17 yards. Tolzien completed less than 50 percent of his passes and no receiver had more than 38 yards.
The special teams allowed another touchdown, this time on a punt, and the defense allowed Michigan State to convert on 9-of-18 third down conversions.
In the end, it all added up to the Badger's fourth-straight loss at Michigan State.
"There were some individual things that ended up being team things in the end," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following the game. "If something goes wrong, you can pinpoint it to that person - but there are 11 guys on the field that are considered to be one unit. A lot of times you can't point it to one specific person or mistake.
"There were enough negative ones today that ended up in defeat."
UW now must recover in time for a heated rivalry game with Minnesota. That kickoff is set for 11:00 A.M. central time at Camp Randall Stadium.