That stunned look on Andrew Maxwell's face after the winning touchdown? That was the look I had, and I'm sure I'm not alone.
Go figure this MSU team would be the one to break Wisconsin's 21-game home winning streak. The team that lost to Iowa at home two weeks ago did it, 16-13 in overtime (box score). Heck said before the game he could live with the Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan losses, but that Iowa one hurt. I think this makes up for it.
The Spartans stole a game, but it's about time one of these went their way. Six of MSU's nine game have been decided by four points or less, and they were two missed field goals from being 6-2 heading into Saturday's game. A Legends division crown isn't impossible, but the No. 1 goal now is just to make a bowl game, and the win over Wisconsin was a huge step to that. One win against Nebraska, Northwestern or Minnesota will do that. I'd say it's very likely, but you never know with this team. --
Looking back at my keys to the game:
Stop the run: Uh, yup. Nineteen total yards rushing for the Badgers. Montee Ball held to 46 yards on 22 carries. Sure, the more than 30 yards on sacks helps (dumb), but Wisconsin's longest run of the day was just 13 yards. The Badgers had averaged more than 400 yards on the ground in the last two games.
Big plays: Nothing BIG, but MSU got a few solid gains on the final drive, including 17- and 12-yard completions to Keith Mumphrey and a 20-yard pass to Tony Lippett. Le'Veon Bell's longest run was nine yards, and that came in OT. So when it mattered most is when they got most of their "big" plays. The defense allowed a few big plays, including the touchdown on a blown coverage, but didn't break otherwise.
Get pressure with front four: I'd have to closely re-watch the game for a true verdict, but at the very least, they did enough taking on blocks to allow the linebackers to create havoc when the blitz came. This might have been the best defensive front seven performance in the Mark Dantonio era, given Wisconsin's history and recent games.
Keep rumbling: Um, no. The rushing stats are above. Nothing was working at all. Even the barge formation and "wildcat" plays didn't do anything. It seemed MSU checked into a blitz anytime James White lined up at quarterback, and it proved effective.
Turnovers: Badgers had a 1-0 edge, but it could have been more. MSU had four(!) fumbles, but only lost one — Lawrence Thomas on a screen. It resulted in a field goal after a touchdown was called back on a penalty. But Maxwell was sacked early, and the fumbled ball sat there seemingly forever. The fumble gods have been very good to MSU in the past two weeks.
Hold the line: This was the biggest stunner. ABC even had a little feature on Wisconsin's offensive line before the game, deservedly so, but that narrative did not play out. MSU entered the day with six sacks and recorded five in the game, along with 12 tackles for loss. MSU had been criticized for the lack of big plays, but have responded big-time in the last two games. --
Now, thoughts on MSU's play:
I mean..... what do you want me to say? The offense sucks, we know that. But I do think there are some things to take from this game moving forward.
For one, use the pass to set up the run. MSU can't run the ball. Don't be fooled by Le'Veon Bell's numbers, MSU is No. 93 in the nation in rushing yards, dead last in the Big Ten. The receivers and quarterback have come along (more on that in a second). The offensive line can't run-block at all. Every run is Le'Veon Bell trying to avoid enough tacklers for a not-negative play. He has rushed averaged 3.1 yards per carry with a long of nine over the last two games, but not a single negative run. That's all on Bell. Forget these jumbo sets and running it. It's not working. Maxwell's final numbers (24-for-39, 216 yards, two touchdowns, 0 INTs aren't bad at all, unless you watched the game. But he went 8-for-9 on the game-tying drive.
That brings me to my second point, which is that I think Maxwell took a big step forward in the final minutes of regulation. As terrible as things were, they needed a confidence boost, and maybe Saturday's finish is it. Maxwell checked into that winning pass. He's feeling more comfortable. Then again, if they keep running the ball 30 times a game, any rhythm gained could go out the window.
This offense is very limited, especially with that line. Stick with the one thing that isn't as bad as the other.
I mean......what do you want me to say? They turned in one of the best performances of the Dantonio era. Outside of one blown coverage on the touchdown, this unit was about perfect. On the two drives that resulted in field goals (off a fumble and in OT) the Badgers lost three yards and one yard, respectively.
Max Bullough was a beast, again, finishing with nine tackles (four solo), 2.5 TFLs and two sacks. Will Gholston returned to his Outback Bowl form with 4.5 TFLs and a sack that knocked Joel Stave out of the game (and don't underestimate how big that was. Danny O'Brien looked overwhelmed when he came in. Stave had much better poise).
No, Wisconsin doesn't have an elite passing game, but that was an all-time performance shutting down Wisconsin's running game.
Dan Conroy went 1-for-1 with a 34-yard field goal. I would have liked to seen MSU attempt that long FG after the blocked punt and backward drive, but I'm not the one paid to make the decisions.
Mike Sadler averaged 38.7 yards on seven punts, including three inside the 20. Wisconsin was able to return one punt, and it went for 34 yards.
I'm not totally sure why Bell is returning kicks. For all of Nick Hill's struggles in other places, his kick returning has typically been very solid. Bell had one return for 21 yards, Hill had one for 29.
The punt return numbers are hilarious. Andre Sims Jr. returned two for one yard. The blocking there continues to be terrible. But that blocked punt fiasco resulted in, according to the box score, one return for Marcus Rush for 15 yards, Denicos Allen picked up one yard without a return, while Johnny Adams picked up six yards without a return, since he fumbled it. What a mess.
(Go to the 20:10 mark of this video. I promise you won't regret it)
The good news is that a bowl game looks much more likely. Although the last three games are winnable, they would have looked less so sitting there with a 4-5 overall record and 1-4 in the Big Ten.
I didn't necessarily question the fight of the Spartans entering Saturday, although I did have my doubts if they were to fall behind big early. But instead of letting the season spin out of control, the defense has responded with two incredible performances, helping the Spartans split what we figured were their two toughest games at the beginning of the season. You can't give enough credit to this team, especially that side of the ball, for not packing things in the way so many pre-Dantonio MSU teams did.
There are plenty of positive signs for 2013, but let's get out of 2012 feeling good, first.
Now we move to November, where MSU is 13-3 under Dantonio (compared to 2-11 under JLS, plus a loss at Hawaii in December). Dantonio likes to say November is for contenders. MSU likely won't be contending for a conference title, but they're still fighting for a bowl berth, a good bowl berth and the perception that the program has only tripped up, instead of taking a step back.