October 2, 2010

Spartans' big plays hurt UW

EAST LANSING -- Every time you looked up, it seemed like Michigan State had the ball, and it the down-and-distance was in the Badgers' favor.

More often than not though, it also seemed as though the Spartans picked up enough yardage to earn a new set of downs. As if that weren't enough, many of those third-down conversions turned out to be big gains, dramatically changing the course of the drive and the football game.

"Big plays on defense hurt us," said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.

"We're a team that if we do things uncharacteristic of what we are, we're going to meet failure and not have success in critical situations."

Wisconsin's defense was not the only unit hurt by big plays. The Badgers were hurt yet again on special teams in the second quarter when MSU returner Keshawn Martin returned a Brad Nortman punt 74 yards for the touchdown.

While it may not have won the game for the Spartans, Martin's touchdown changed the momentum in a hurry.

"I wouldn't say it got us beat today," free safety Aaron Henry said of the special teams. "But it didn't help."

On their three touchdown drives, the Spartans converted on five third downs and two fourth down attempts. Those three drives also featured nine plays of 10 yards or more for the Michigan State offense.

All told, MSU went for 10 or more yards on 17 plays in the game, including three that were at least 20 yards and three more of 30 yards or more. On third down, the Spartans went 9-for-18, while converting two of three fourth downs.

"We need to get it together, man," Henry said. "It's just the small things that we've got to correct. We know we have a ton of talent, we know we've got a real good football team, we know we can play with anybody in the country.

"But today, Michigan State was a little bit better than us."

On no drive were the Badgers' third down struggles more evident than the Spartans' final trip down the field. Reeling off 15 plays over 8:03 for 84 yards, Michigan State delivered a devastating knockout punch to Wisconsin.

Crucial to their success on that drive were three successful third-down conversions, from third-and-9, third-and-11 and third-and-5. The first was converted on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins to Mark Dell. That was nothing compared to the back-breaking pass that came just three plays later.

Facing third-and-11 on his own 28-yard line, Cousins found Larry Caper for a 35-yard completion, moving the ball down to the UW 37-yard line.

"We did a great job on first and second down," cornerback Antonio Fenelus said. "We've just got to be able to convert and stop them on those third and longs and just [eliminate] those big plays they had."

Caper struck again later in the drive, rushing for 11 yards on third-and-5, which set up a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line and gave Michigan State a shot at a game-winning touchdown a few plays later.

Wisconsin's inability to prevent big plays and stop Michigan State on third down was reflected in the final statistics for the Spartan offense. On the ground, MSU outgained UW 175 yards to 165. Through the air, Sparty put up 269 yards to just 127 for Bucky.

All told, the Spartans tallied 444 yards to 292 for Wisconsin. Both numbers were far from the Badgers' season averages of 484 yards per game offensively and 265.2 given up on defense.

"That's all on the players, we've got to pick it up," safety Jay Valai said. "It was very frustrating because we're a better defense than that. We've got to be able to stop them eventually."

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