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Wisconsin vs. Michigan State: The Big Ten's Best Current Rivalry

Warning: Keith Nichol makes an appearance.

Gregory Shamus

It's no secret that the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe has been ridiculously one-sided for almost an entire decade.

So maybe it's time the Axe buys a house in Madison, because by the time it leaves the housing market may have finally recovered.

Sure, there were some close games between 2007-09, but the results were the same. Nine straight games, nine straight Wisconsin victories. That's like my youngest brother and I playing basketball against each other (I'm 6-foot-2 on a good day, he's just a short, albeit growing, freshman in high school). Not much of a competition.

But Wisconsin's truest, fiercest rivalry of the last decade lays with a school that doesn't share a border -- besides the Upper Peninsula, that belongs to Wisconsin. But that's another topic entirely.

You know what I'm referring to. But if you really don't, here's the daunting reminder. Turn away if you have a weak stomach.

Barf. I still remember the crushing, depleting sadness this game made me feel. Not because I'm a Wisconsin fan (as a journalist, I have to be professional and unbiased, ignore the fact that I'm a student at UW and that I grew up my entire life wanting to be a Badger) but because it was the end of the first, legitimate national championship run this program has experienced since Barry Alvarez's Rose Bowl years.

Russell Wilson led Wisconsin back from a 14-point deficit, but the team's errors -- the blocked punt and second-quarter meltdown -- put the team in a position where the outcome of the game could be determined on the last play. That night in East Lansing, didn't belong to the Badgers. Not yet.

But, as the script was altered that night against the Spartans, it seemed certain the two teams would indeed meet again. Wisconsin met Michigan State again at the first ever Big Ten Championship Game and just like the first round in 2011, it went down to the wire. While Russell Wilson's fourth-down, across-the-field heave to Jeff Duckworth was by far the play of the game, many people still forget the defensive play of the year made by Chris Borland just a series earlier.

With Michigan State holding possession of the ball on a 3rd-and-5 on the Wisconsin 8-yard line and the lead at 36-34 with around 8:30 left in the game, quarterback Kirk Cousins saw receiver Keshawn Martin open for what looked to be a touchdown. The score would have been critical, pushing the score to a two-possession MSU lead. But Borland went across his body to deflect the pass in one of the most athletic plays you will ever see from a middle linebacker, as the tips of his fingers reached the ball, deflecting it away and forcing the Spartans to settle for a field goal, keeping the game in reach.

Gus Johnson's archaic scream and call of "WHAT A CATCH" almost erased the bitter taste Badger fans had experienced months earlier. Hey, it wasn't the national championship. But another trip to Pasadena was a sweet consolation prize.

The Spartan-Badger madness doesn't end there. It would be hideously outrageous if I refused to delve into the 2010 debacle, which still makes MSU fans green as their home jerseys.

My junior year may have been more enjoyable than my senior year. Why? Few people expected Wisconsin to go to the Rose Bowl in 2010, especially with its rocky beginning. A 34-24 loss to Michigan State, once again at East Lansing, led to many giving up on the Badgers that season. Kirk Cousins could not be stopped by the Badgers' D, throwing for 269 yards and three touchdowns.

It was a typical Wisconsin letdown on the road, in my eyes. But, as any seasoned fan or player of the game knows, one loss isn't the end of the world, especially with the amount of season that remained.

The rest is remarkable history. Seven consecutive wins, including an upset under the lights of Camp Randall against No. 1 Ohio State, propelled Wisconsin into the Rose Bowl. How the Badgers made it, however, is where Michigan State fans hold their grudge.



The Big Ten standings that year concluded with three teams tied for first: Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. It went down to the third tiebreaker, and due to Wisconsin's higher ranking in the BCS system, the Badgers were the ones selected to make the trip to Pasadena. Because Michigan State and Ohio State didn't play each other that year, the first-tier tiebreaker -- record in head-to-head matchups -- was nullified. The second tier-tiebreaker -- overall record -- was also nullified because each team owned the same record.

So, the Badgers' 34-24 loss to the Spartans didn't end up hurting them. And it also saved them from meeting No. 7 Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, as Michigan State fell in a merciless onslaught to the 2009 national champions, 49-7.

While this year the Spartans are experiencing a Kirk Cousins Hangover with a 1-3 record in conference play thus far, they're still as dangerous an opponent as any in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin isn't underestimating them.

The Badgers' rejuvenated run game will face the toughest defense in the conference. The Spartans are currently the Big Ten's best scoring defense and in total offense, giving up just 15.2 points (11th in the nation) and 277.1 yards per game (fifth). The Spartans also lead the Big Ten and rank 12th in the nation with a rushing defense that only allows 100.2 rushing yards per game.

In contrast, over the past two games, the Badgers average 402 rushing yards per contest. Should be entertaining to watch. In the past two years, this game has had Rose Bowl implications, and while one team's hopes may be diminished, it doesn't change the fact that MSU could still lay the ass-kicking and snap the Badgers' 22-home game win streak.

And really, if two desperation heaves determined the last two meetings between the two, who knows what Saturday will hold?

Hopefully, something like this. I have no clue what year this happened, but this Spartan cheerleader just unloads on Bucky, who apparently stole their flag.