Bret Bielema will pretend to move on from this loss. He won't.
Yeah, I'm a basketball guy. But no Wisconsin fan was immune to Saturday night's heartbreak. So please indulge me in one final bit of reflection.
Part of the catharsis is putting the 37-31 loss into perspective historically. For me, that meant looking up Bill Simmons' Levels of Losing. Love him or hate him, the Sports Guy tapped into a communal sports experience when he defined the original 13 (now 16) levels of sports heartache.
Just so we're all on the same page, this game was a surefire Hall of Fame Level III loss. The Stomach Punch. As in, only exceeded by Level II season-crushing tailspins and of course a Red Sox Game 6 nightmare event (Level I). And though unlikely, there is no guarantee the Michigan State Hail Mary game doesn't rise to a Level II when all is said and done. I'll explain.
Here's how Simmons defined a Level III loss:
... any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch ...
Losing on a disputed Hail Mary touchdown on the final play of a game where your Heisman candidate senior quarterback spent the middle half of the game making mistakes you never dreamed he'd make ... well, that definitely fits the bill. You might think I am being too hard on Russell Wilson. Maybe. But we thought we knew what the Badgers had in this QB only to find out that in actuality, no, Wilson cannot do everything.
The also loss derailed a legitimate National Championship-caliber season. With a lot of football yet to be played, the great implications were not quite there yet, but had this happened in a Big Ten Championship Game, I think you could make a case for Level I.
There were shades of Level VI: The Broken Axle (see: entire 2nd quarter), Level VIII: The "This Can't Be Happening", Level X: The Monkey Wrench (see: both Bret Bielema's use of TOs and officials overturning final play ruling), and maybe even down the road some of Level XV: The Achilles' Heel (see: special teams).
Even though the ending defines the game, thinking back the baffling nature of the game hits home when you look at Level XII: The Rabbit's Foot. Incredibly frustrating because every break goes the opponents way.
Without rewatching any portion of the game, I could immediately rifle off six plays that went the wrong way that in and of themselves could have swung the game in Wisconsin's favor:
- Wilson's intentional grounding = Safety - From the awful play call (was there really only one option?) to Wilson's ultimate decision, this was the type of play we came accustomed to seeing Wilson make lemonade out of. Still cannot fathom him throwing that ball to that spot -- I think I even uttered the words "Tolzein wouldn't have done that."
- Blocked field goal - "Yikes, Badgers might be in trouble tonight" ... yup, those three points would have been nice. Came right after Montee Ball's injury and James White getting stuffed on the seemingly easy 3rd-and-1 from the 13-yard line.
- Blocked punt = Touchdown- Laziest. Blocking. Ever. 'Nuff Said.
- Wilson is blind to wide open Pedersen - This was a guaranteed touchdown in the 3rd quarter, when Wilson threw incomplete cross field to go to a covered receiver on the outside rather than his tight end all alone down the middle. Was the shorter Wilson's vision blocked by a couple of bigger players on this play? Otherwise, it's inexplicable. One of at least two times Wilson missed or overthrew Jacob Pedersen.
- Jared Abbrederis drops the bomb - Right through the hands of a sure-handed walk-on star. Instead of points, it was three-and-out to start the Badger 4th quarter.
- Hail Mary - Michigan State fans even happily acknowledge the dumb luck combination on this play. 1. Abbrederis mistimes his jump. 2. Bounces right to Keith Nichol. 3. Taylor has the instincts to try ripping the ball back immediately. 4. Questionable indisputable evidence. Yes, I believe the ball crossed the plane. No, this was not a no-brainer to overturn. It was really, really close. Wonder if that same call gets overturned in Madison.
My stomach has only felt that way after two other losses: The Michigan collapse of '08 and the Darrell Bevell interception parade in the Metrodome in 1993. The only single play that comes close to the sad significance of the Hail Mary was Ohio State's block to preserve a 13-13 tie, also during the '93 Rose Bowl season.
The again, what a great game, really ...
I said before the game that these two teams have been the class of the Big Ten for the last two seasons and the game did everything to back that up. Going over all the luck that helped Michigan State win tends to take away from the amazing effort by the Spartan defense and Kirk Cousins, but I mean no disrespect. I take some level of comfort knowing that Michigan State, an obviously excellent team, needed to play a near-perfect game plus some luck at the end to beat a Wisconsin team that did not play anywhere near its best.
For all the complaining about how Russell & Co. faltered under the pressure of a big road game, Wilson got his team right back where it needed to be in the final minute. I had no doubt overtime would have belonged to Bucky.
See, I can move on now. That nervous tapping you hear? Just me, eagerly awaiting the rematch.