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December 4, 2011

Big Ten Champions!

INDIANAPOLIS - Senior punter Brad Nortman wasn't surprised when Michigan State unleashed a punt block as he was preparing to kick the ball back to the Spartans with just less than two minutes to play.

His Badgers were leading the inaugural Big Ten championship game 42-39 and the Spartans were essentially guaranteed decent field position one way or another in front of a frenzied crowd of 64,152 fans.

Facing fourth and four, Wisconsin was settling to punt back to a red hot MSU offense, one that had already scored 39 points and racked up 471 yards of total offense.

That was when safety Isaiah Williams clipped Nortman's leg, and when a flag was thrown for running into the kicker that granted Wisconsin a first down.

"I thought he flopped a little bit," MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said. "Obviously if he hit him he just nicked him."

Since Michigan State didn't have any timeouts left, UW senior quarterback Russell Wilson took three quick kneels to clinch the first-ever Big Ten championship and Wisconsin's second-straight trip to Pasadena.

Fittingly enough, MSU wide receiver Keshawn Martin returned the same punt to UW's one-yard line before Nortman finally pushed him out of bounds. That was more Nortman going through the motions than anything else.

He knew UW was about to be given five yards and a first down.

"There was certainly some contact," Nortman, who spun around wildly after Lewis ran into him before falling to the ground, said. "It doesn't hurt to put a little bit extra on it. I wasn't thinking before the play that I was going to take a flop.

"But when you're in the air and a little vulnerable a little bit extra doesn't hurt."

Who knows if Nortman even gets the chance to show off his inner Hollywood, though, if it weren't for the clutch factor in Russell Wilson, Jeff Duckworth and Montee Ball.

Trailing by five and facing fourth and six from the MSU 43-yard line, Wilson hoisted a desperation heave in the direction of sophomore wide out Jeff Duckworth.

At first it seemed as though the pass had no chance of falling into the arms of the positioning receiver, but Duckworth made the play of the game and saved the Badger season from a Lucas Oil Stadium sized disappointment.

Duckworth reeled it in for a 36-yard gain, though Michigan State defender Trenton Robinson was all over him.

It was a rather big play for a kid that hasn't played a whole lot this season.

"I kind of ran a route that wasn't very good," Duckworth, who finished with three catches for 53 yards and a touchdown, said. "I saw Russell threw it up and it just gave me a chance to go up and make a play.

"I was able to go up and do it."

Ball scored from seven yards out on the final play to give UW a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

"I'm really glad that I talked to my teammates," Ball said. "I told them that we've got to move this ball now and we've got to get it done.

"And we did."

Wilson, 17-of-24 for 187 yards and three touchdowns, was named game MVP. He also finished with two receptions, one on a beautiful halfback pass from Ball and the other off a deflected pass that bounced back to him, for 31 yards.

He was clutch, opportunistic, patient and electric throughout the entirety of Saturday's roller coaster of emotional highs and lows.

"It is spectacular," Wilson, who also set a new NCAA record by throwing at least one touchdown pass in 37-straight games, said. "This is a blessing and I want to thank coach Bielema for letting me come here. I have to thank the whole Wisconsin family.

"I know if my dad was here he'd have a big smile on his face."

Wilson's smile, along with the rest of the smiles floating around the Wisconsin locker room, was hard earned.

As it did in the first meeting against Michigan State, Wisconsin jumped out to an early 14-point lead. Then, in eerily similar fashion to what took place in East Lansing, the Badgers gave up 22 unanswered second quarter points, including a faked point after that went for two points.

Michigan State wound up leading UW 29-21 at intermission. Wisconsin's defense, ranked in the top five nationally entering the game, gave up 317 yards of total defense in the open 30 minutes of play.

"(Coach Chris Ash) chewed us out a little bit," UW senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus said. "He told us it was going to come down to the secondary and just getting guys down.

"We rallied and just came out on top."

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins finished Saturday's game 22-of-30 for 281 yards and three touchdowns, all to B.J. Cunningham, and an interception. And running back Le'Veon Bell rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

It wasn't enough for a Michigan State squad that so desperately hoped to make its first trip to Pasadena since 1988.

"We felt we were having our way offensively all game long," Cousins said. "We never felt like we have the game won. We felt like there was a lot of time left, but we did what we wanted all day offensively.

"It's tough. (We) came close two years in a row. It's tough."

As Fenelus said inside a raucous and excited locker room, Wisconsin didn't play anywhere near its best game defensively. But when it mattered most it rose to the challenge and got the stops needed to punch a ticket back to southern California.

With Michigan State up two midway through the fourth quarter and threatening inside the Badger 10-yard line, sophomore linebacker Chris Borland forced Michigan State to settle for a chip-shot field goal by breaking up Cousin's third down pass intended for Martin.

Instead of going up eight with the potential to make it nine with a good extra point, Michigan State only extended its lead to five.

The rest will go down in Big Ten history.

"If I would have told myself a year ago that I'd be going again it would be hard to admit that it could maybe mean more," Nortman said. "It does mean a little bit more. I'm very excited and I can't wait to get back there."


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