Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31: Sport, in a Single Moment

An intentional grounding call taken for a safety.

A blocked field goal.

A blocked punt returned for a touchdown.

A tight end overthrown for an easy touchdown, twice.

A wide receiver dropping another sure touchdown.

Two interceptions from a quarterback who was all-but-perfect entering the game.

There’s the laundry list of things that had gone wrong for the Wisconsin Badgers in the first 59 minutes and 56 seconds in East Lansing as, on the other side, Kirk Cousins powered the Michigan State offense to 31 points on essentially the perfect quarterback game.

You can argue there’s a possibility the Badgers win in regulation without even one of those miscues. You can definitely argue removing any two of those makes the Badgers a winner and potentially puts them on cruise control for an undefeated season. But every single one occurred and yet, despite it all, with just four seconds left and the Spartans 44 yards away — light years for a guy like Kirk Cousins who, like Scott Tolzien last season, is built for the short passing game, not the long bomb — we were ready for overtime at Spartan Stadium.

And then, of course, this happened:

Indisputable video evidence, a 37-31 final, and for a second straight year, an undefeated season dies on the field in East Lansing.

The Badgers should have won this game. Despite becoming Murphy’s Team for 60 minutes, the Badgers and Spartans were tied through 99.8888888889% of Saturday night’s game. They had the talent, clearly, to win the game, and as is so oft declared by analysts, they would have won “seven times out of ten” or maybe “65 times out of 100,” or some such number out of some slightly bigger number. The actual digits aren’t too important, but the cliched idea holds particularly true in this case.

But, by the same token, this is precisely why Michigan State deserved to win and the Badgers deserved to lose on this night. For the final 45 minutes, the Spartans played effectively flawless football, displaying perfect ball security and committing not even a single turnover. Kirk Cousins completed nearly every important pass, the defense did just enough to slow down arguably the nation’s highest powered offense, and Keith Nichol hauled in perhaps the most pivotal bounce in Badger football history — my knowledge of Michigan State football history is limited, but I would imagine it ranks highly on the list in East Lansing as well.

Just knock it down, they say, as if it’s so simple. As if just by thinking “knock it down” instead of, say, going for the interception, the Hail Mary can be perfectly and impenetrably defended. But, you know, they say a lot. They say the Badgers win by nine, or eight, or 7.5, depending on when you happened upon the board at the Bellagio. They say the Oklahoma Sooners win by 30 points Sunday in Norman instead of seeing their national title hopes all but dashed within hours of the Badgers suffering the same fate. They can say all they want to say — and, honestly, they’re right pretty often.

But, inexorably, there is that one ridiculous bounce. The one that decides whose performance over the other 3,596 seconds of action — and, thanks to the playoff-free system of college football, the other 11 or 12 games of the season — was the stuff of legends and whose performance will let down legions of fans. The moment as Keith Nichol surged over the plane of the goal line (and he did, indisputably) is one of those moments that truly defines sports.

For the Badgers, all is not lost. National Championship dreams are gone barring mass chaos or perhaps Alabama and Louisiana seceding from the Union again — and even then, Idaho would probably have to join in as well — but such has been the case, at one point or another, for 120 years of Wisconsin football, and the Badgers have played on. This year, there is still plenty at stake — a second straight Big Ten Championship, and a second straight trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

Michigan State fans were adamant that it should have been the Spartans, not the Badgers, representing the conference in last season’s Rose Bowl on the virtue of the former’s head-to-head victory. Today’s victory will surely add more fodder to their cannons. But this year, the Big Ten has a championship game to decide things as opposed to the seemingly arbitrary whims of the coaches, the Harris Poll voters, and those enigmatic computers of the BCS, and the Badgers and the Spartans appear to be on a crash course for a rematch in Indianapolis.

And if anything should give the Badgers motivation to finish the season strong, that will be it.

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