Michigan State and Wisconsin produced two of the year’s most memorable contests in 2011. Both games featured highly ranked teams and unforgettable finishes. The 2012 version would be exactly the same – minus the highly ranked part. Stumbles and struggles have pinned these teams to the middle of the pack in their respective Big Ten divisions. The Badgers, however, are still likely to reach the Big Ten title game as a result of Ohio State and Penn State’s ineligibility due to naughtiness. A cold and clear autumn afternoon in Madison served up all the usual action including a busy farmer’s market circling the capitol and a buzzed up State Street.
“Go Green!” “Go White!” All throughout the campus on gameday, Spartan fans see-saw this chant back and forth. The echoes converge on Spartan Stadium where one half of the arena blasts “Go Green!” while the other responds with “Go White!” The cheer is simple, but piercing and at times, intimidating. Watch the Spartan band as they pound and march their way toward Spartan Stadium – Sparty leading the way. They pass the nearly 10 foot tall Sparty statue that has become an icon on campus and a famous place in the area to grab a photo opportunity.
Michigan State should get a lot of credit for scheduling Boise State, a well known giant killer, in the opening game of the year. The Broncos are without much of the talent that took them to such great heights over the past few years, but are known to still never be taken lightly. A packed Spartan Stadium filled with green and white except for a couple bright orange corners that vibrantly represented the visitors from Idaho.
Many of the Michigan State fans entering the stadium commented in awe about the new scoreboard that towered over the south end zone. “That scoreboard is ridiculous!” mentioned a loud and proud MSU follower seated next to me. Additional LED replay boards and ribbon boards were added on the north end, which flickered light in such a way that almost resembled lightning during this night game. The 10 million dollar project appeared worth the cost as the boards illuminated the action and enhanced the already phenomenal gameday experience at MSU.
As the Spartan Marching band concluded it’s pregame set, members from all major university sports formed a tunnel (including basketball’s Tom Izzo and crew) to welcome the football team. After two years of near Rose Bowl misses, this year’s fan base is anticipating a more promising finish to the season. The deafening hollers as the Spartans came out of the tunnel suggested readiness for greatness. The PA announcer followed with a report that it was “84 degrees and a…” (to which the crowd responded in unison) “…BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR FOOTBALL!” It was a hot night particularly squashed into a stadium eagerly awaiting this highly anticipated matchup.
The Spartans got off to a hot start relying on Le’Veon Bell to grind on the defense for an early TD. Boise State has made a living by knocking off highly ranked Oregon, Virginia Tech, and Georgia in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively. It looked like MSU would be the fourth victim when in the second quarter, the Broncos returned an interception for a crowd hushing TD. In fact, after carrying a three point lead into the fourth, they looked to be poised for another opening weekend upset. Then, Michigan State answered the bell. Le’Veon Bell scored a late go ahead TD, and Boise ran out of gas as the Spartan D put a period on this contest. A collective “WHEW!” blew out of the stadium. Once everyone caught their breath, “GO GREEN! GO WHITE!” reverberated through the hot August night. Without Kirk Cousins, their QB star from year’s past, the Spartans know they have some work ahead. But, in the meantime, they know for whom the “bell” tolls. And if the high price-tag of those scoreboards were ever a question, they just got a lot prettier with a 17-13 final beaming down on the smiling fans.
October 22, 2011. An undefeated group of Badgers invade East Lansing with aspirations of a national championship in sight. Michigan State is still feeling short changed from defeating Wisconsin last year, yet still being shut out of the Rose Bowl due to three way tie breaker rules. The Badgers got the nod. On this marquis prime time matchup, the Spartans stun the visiting Badgers with a heart stopping Hail Mary pass that landed in the arms of a Spartan receiver as time expired. “Redemption” became the word plastered all over MSU tshirts and general conversation. I couldn’t help but think – well, what if these two teams meet again in the title game?
Seriously. How does Michigan State get away with playing their first game out of the state of Michigan in mid October. I know it’s an election year, but really, did they have to give THAT much to the senator’s campaign? Well, Northwestern isn’t much of a road trip. I’m not discounting the Wildcats’ ability, but home field advantage in Evanston is sometimes comparable to a Chucky-E-Cheese. However, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit reminded viewers that Ryan Field can put opponents to sleep. It has the same effect as poppies have on the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and Dorothy.
At the end of a college football Saturday, most fans catch the scrolling scores at the bottom of their television screen. There always is at least one score that results in a double take. This game provided that astonishing score. The Badgers rolled into East Lansing carrying a hefty 9-0 record and top five ranking. Michigan State has experienced nothing but extreme inconsistency and disappointment. Next week’s game at Iowa was supposed to be the struggle, but the Spartans gave Wisconsin much more than they could handle. The pride of the Badgers is their defense having held every team they played under twenty points. Wisconsin’s offense doesn’t exactly ignite fireworks, but they haven’t needed to light up the scoreboard with their suffocating defense leading the way.
There must have been a deliveryman between quarterback Jim Sorgi and wide receiver Lee Evans because everything Sorgi sent, Evans received. The student section bowed down to Evans as though he achieved deity status with his school record five-touchdown performance. Backup tailback Dwayne Smith packed in a career day with three scores of his own, but his efforts seemed overshadowed by the mystical receiving skills of Lee Evans.
A classic wide receiver battle was about to unfold in Madison on a boisterous weekend highlighted by Halloween and homecoming. Camp Randall Stadium is daunting to take on for opponents without these variables, but Michigan State had some weapons to unload on a often defense optional Wisconsin squad. Both the Spartans and Badgers needed victories to strengthen the heartbeat of their bowl hopes. Wisconsin receiver Lee Evans and Spartan wide-out Charles Rogers were both prepared to resuscitate their team’s season.
Out of respect for those who perished in the September 11th attacks and due to safety concerns, college football games were cancelled on the 15th of September. Some games resumed on the 22nd, but everything was back to full momentum on September 29. Entering the stadium, each fan received an embroidered stick-on flag to proudly wear. A lengthy moment of silence preceded the game and I knew that every stadium in the country was performing the same tribute.
The Badgers and Spartans enter this game being able to relate to each other’s situations rather well. Their respective outcomes are practically a mirror image. Both teams began with a resounding 3-0 start against decent competition. However, both teams also experienced the rungs snapping on their ladder to success with losing streaks in the Big Ten.