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College Teams Mon Oct 24 2011

Big Ten Football: Divine Intervention

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There were four seconds left when the final play began, but anyone who watched knows the ball hung in the air for much longer than that. With the score tied and Wisconsin and Michigan State scrambling to avoid collapse, quarterback Kirk Cousins heaved a last-second touchdown pass 44 yards to give the Spartans a 36-31 win.

They call it a Hail Mary for a reason.

Cousins' desperation pass to a group of anxious players from both sides encapsulated the prior three hours of physical blows, but the action between No. 16 Michigan State (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) and No. 6 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1) started nearly a week earlier.

Spartans safety Isaiah Lewis threw the first punch, telling the media his defense was going to inflict physical harm on the Badgers' star quarterback, Russell Wilson. But it was Badgers running back Montee Ball who countered on their first play from scrimmage. Ball ran off the left tackle and introduced his shoulder to Lewis' tumbling frame.

Lewis would return to the game later and nab one of Wilson's two interceptions -- twice as many as he'd thrown to that point all season. And perhaps the game's most compelling storyline was Wilson's hot start, fall and phoenix-like rise. The former Heisman hopeful made positive contributions even while he struggled, making a near-perfect form tackle on State's Trenton Robinson after the safety had swung back from Nick Toon to record the game's second turnover.

But the times got tough, and Wilson gave the Spartans their first points after he was called for intentional grounding from his own end zone. With less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter he marched the Badgers back from a 14-point deficit by running for one touchdown and throwing for another.

Cousins had a less dramatic showing. He threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns with systematic decision-making. He was a model of efficiency and a symbol of reliability.

Michigan State dominated special teams play as well. After blocking one field goal attempt, the Spartans blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown.

But despite the 10-point special teams swing, the Badgers hung with it. And with just 1:26 left, Ball caught a soft touchdown pass from Wilson. Michigan State had two timeouts, and the viewing audience seemed headed for overtime and free football.

But in the Big Ten, no lead is certain. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has come under fire for calling defensive timeouts with 42 and 30 seconds left, but he obviously understood the importance of perfect strategic alignment. The Badgers did everything they could, keeping Michigan State out of field goal range and under pressure.

But with four seconds left, Cousins put up a prayer that no defensive alignment could have schemed for. The ball caromed off one receiver and into the arms of another: Keith Nichol, whose feet were just a yard shy of the goal line. And after a desperate struggle to push into the end zone, he went down inside the 1.

But replay officials ruled Nichol had gotten the ball across the plane of the goal line. The game was over. Michigan State had won.

Many, especially Wisconsin fans, will say it's wrong to let the fate of a game be decided by technology, in the booth, away from the action and with imperfect camera angles.

But if there's one absolute Truth in all of this, it's that neither of these teams was going to the national championship game anyway. But considering the state of affairs across the Big Ten, there's a very real chance that one of these two will be going to the Rose Bowl.

First, they would have to meet again: Dec. 3 in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. There's no telling how well prayers are received through the roof over Lucas Oil Field; but for the sake of thrilling, electric football (and regardless of which teams are in on it), I hope we get the chance to find out.

Purdue 21, No. 23 Illinois 14

There are words to describe what has happened with both Purdue (4-3, 2-1) and Illinois (6-2, 2-2) the past three weeks, but I don't know any of them.

No. 13 Nebraska 41, Minnesota 14

I like to think Nebraska (6-1, 2-1) let the Gophers (1-6, 0-3) have a couple here, just because they share my affinity for palindromes.

Iowa 45, Indiana 24
No. 21 Penn State 34, Northwestern 24

As expected.

 
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