Oct. 27, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
While claiming a 16-13 overtime victory at Wisconsin, Michigan State wide receiver Bennie Fowler and quarterback Andrew Maxwell found redemption and MSU defended its credibility in terms of the Big Ten standards it established the previous two seasons.
The Spartans had maintained going into Saturday's game that the six points separating them from a 4-0 conference start and a 7-1 overall record seemed more like a nightmarish illusion than an indictment of their capabilities.
However, the stream of people who took Michigan State seriously started to dwindle with the 17-16 loss to Ohio State in Spartan Stadium, slowed again with the 19-16 double-overtime home loss against Iowa and was down to a trickle after the 12-10 derailment at Michigan.
It's probable that even many of the staunch believers tuned out after a mistake-plagued first half had Michigan State trailing the Badgers 7-3 - primarily because of a relentless defensive effort but without much reason to hope the offense could make up the deficit - to start the fourth quarter.
But then, the heretofore missing mojo that had turned the tables so many times in the Spartans' favor during the back-to-back 11-win campaigns in 2010 and '11, and to a certain extent in Coach Mark Dantonio's first three seasons as well, finally came to the surface.
A couple of plays offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, quarterbacks coach Dave Warner and Maxwell re-configured during breakfast in the team hotel and MSU's first shovel pass of the season sent the game into overtime and set the stage for Fowler's 12-yard, game-winner.
"That catch means a lot to me," said Fowler, who had a total of six for 48 yards. "Since my struggles earlier in the season against Notre Dame and Ohio State, I been trying to come through and make the big catch, and I was able to make the big catch today. We were able to get the win, which is the most important thing, and I'm glad I could be a part of it."
The Spartans (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten), who a week ago had observers scouring the schedule for enough potential wins to extend their streak of five bowl appearances, are now one victory away from becoming postseason eligible with three games remaining.
They ramped up their relevance by avenging last season's last-minute loss to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game and snapping its 21-game win streak at Camp Randall Stadium. Unranked Michigan State also ended the Badgers' 40-game mastery over unranked opponents with its first victory in Madison since 2001.
And it did it by holding the odds-on favorite to represent the Leaders Division in the title game for the second-straight year to 19 rushing yards, nearly 182 fewer than its season average.
"I think every football team has a defining moment and we've been searching for that moment thus far this year - you know, a point in time where we had to come of age a little bit," Dantonio said. "I'm just really happy for Andrew Maxwell and Bennie Fowler, and really happy for our football team. We're learning how to play under pressure, I will say that.
"We made some big mistakes in the first half. But it was an outstanding drive at the end of the football game and it will be one that I'll always remember."
First, the defense, which had done everything in its power to win but come up with a key stop at a critical point of those three close defeats, came to the aid and comfort of one of its own.
After fullback Lawrence Thomas, an end on loan from the defense, had a screen pass knocked out of his hands by Wisconsin defensive back Marcus Cromartie, and the Badgers recovered the fumble at the MSU 15-yard line, a familiar plot-line was unfolding.
This time, however, the defense reared up and put the opposing offense back on its heels while forcing the Badgers to settle for a 39-yard field goal.
Then, the offense that had performed like a race car with a bad tank of gas for eight and three-quarter games, suddenly started to fire on all cylinders during that memorable 12-play, 75-yard possession.
Maxwell completed a third-and-3 sideline pass to tight end Dion Sims, who bulled forward for a first down. Maxwell completed another down the middle to wideout Keith Mumphery running a slant pattern for 17 more, and three plays later, on second-and-17, pump-faked before unleashing a soft floater down the middle to wideout Tony Lippett, who jumped as high as he could to snare for a 20-yard gain and another first down.
"The ones we drew up this morning was with Keith and Tony running toward the middle, giving a little stutter and then running right up the chute," Maxwell said. "We kind of saw a weakness in the defense that we thought we might be able to exploit. We called it at two huge times and made great plays on it. We took two plays we already had, combined them and tweaked one side of it."
Maxwell, who was criticized for not running the ball when the pass wasn't there against Michigan, later scrambled 7 yards for a first down to the Wisconsin 11. Running back Le'Veon Bell rushed the ball to the 5 on first down, but Maxwell's throwaway out the back of the end zone set up third-and-4.
It was then that the beleaguered Roushar unveiled the shovel pass at the perfect time against Wisconsin's hard-charging edge defenders.
Maxwell rolled to the left before flipping the ball back to Bell, who was cutting up field off left tackle, senior offensive guard Chris McDonald sealed off Badger linebacker Ethan Armstrong with a solid block and the touchdown forced overtime.
"The shovel pass is one we've had in and have been practicing for a couple of weeks but just haven't had an opportunity to run it," said Maxwell, who completed 24-of-39 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns.
After the defense again pushed Wisconsin backward on the first possession of overtime with its 12th tackle behind the line of scrimmage, and the Badgers settled for a 43-yard field go-ahead goal, Fowler got ready to take center stage and atone for his costly drops against Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Three Bell runs set up second-and-8 at the 12 and Fowler might have ended the game on the very next play, but Maxwell's pass was thrown safely out of the reach of Badger defenders. Nevertheless, Fowler remained the go-to guy he was slated to be at the start of the season on the next play as well.
Despite being tightly covered by freshman defensive back Darius Hillary in the end zone, Fowler adjusted flawlessly to Maxwell's back-shoulder pass and cradled the ball against the No. 13 sewn onto the front of his jersey.
"On that last drive and in overtime we just called plays that were working for us," Fowler said. "We just executed, stayed together and stayed positive. We didn't do anything out of the ordinary; we just finished plays. It was Maxwell having poise back there and delivering the ball and Le'Veon rushing the ball.
"After the Notre Dame game, that drop was behind me because I don't really dwell on the past. I just try to think positive and more forward, but this was a great moment for me, and I'll never forget it."