EAST LANSING, Mich. - Consider this one a huge missed opportunity.
Despite forcing three first half turnovers and holding a 10-3 lead in the first half, the Badgers lost 34-24 at Michigan State Saturday and suffered a big road block in their quest to the return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000.
The Spartans played without head coach Mark Dantonio for the second straight week, but you hardly knew he wasn't there. Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack Sept. 18 shortly after calling for a fake field goal in overtime that beat Notre Dame. Saturday, Michigan State left it to offensive coordinator and acting head coach Don Treadwell to make the gutsy calls.
The biggest of those came with 2:48 in the game with Michigan State stuck with a fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line while holding a 27-24 lead. Treadwell rolled dice and it paid off as Kirk Cousins found B.J. Cunningham in the end zone for a touchdown that gave MSU a 10-point lead.
It was certainly the dagger, but definitely not the only reason why Wisconsin lost its first Big Ten game of the season.
Once again, UW's special teams let the Badgers down. Holding a 10-6 lead in the second quarter, Brad Nortman was punting with the wind at his back. Instead of kicking it high in the air, he struck a low line drive and Keshawn Martin had plenty of room to run off a 74-yard return for a touchdown. From there on, the Spartans never relinguished the lead.
"I just miss-hit it," Nortman said after the game. "It was going with the win that time and I tried to kick it too hard. It was just too low for a returner like that and he made us pay."
There were plenty of other issues too. Scott Tolzien only completed 11-of-25 passes for 127 and one touchdown. That was in large part to a number of dropped passes, but the senior quarterback was by no means sharp.
John Clay also had his ten-game streak of rushing for at least 100 yards and touchdown snapped. He was held to just 80 yards and no scores on 17 carries. James White picked up the slack with 98 yards and two touchdowns, but the Badgers never seemed to develop a consistent rhythm on offense.
"For us to move forward we just need to run the ball effectively against good run defenses," head coach Bret Bielema said. "MSU is one of those teams and we had mixed results."
Meanwhile Wisconsin's defense was very inconsistent. It was great on first and second down as the Badgers forced MSU into 18 third down situations, but UW allowed the Spartans to convert on half of those. None was bigger than the 35-yard screen pass the Badgers allowed on 3rd-and-11 on Michigan State's final touchdown drive.
"At the end of the day, we didn't play too well fundamentally and that's going to get you beat," J.J. Watt said. "It's not a thing of we don't know how to play fundamentally, or we didn't practice it, it's just the way the cookie crumbled today. It was a tough day for us overall."
The Badgers must regroup as rival Minnesota comes to Camp Randall next weekend. In 2008, Wisconsin lost its first Big Ten game of the season -- a road game at Michigan when the Badgers had an undefeated record and Top 10 ranking. They would go on to lose four straight games.
One loss does not eliminate the Badgers from the Big Ten title race, but it most certainly makes things harder. With Ohio State yet to come to Madison and a road trip to Iowa after that, the Badgers need to correct their mistakes in a hurry to avoid another 2008.