EAST LANSING, Mich. — If the crucial Big Ten Conference football opener on Saturday between the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State was going to be decided by third downs, the Badgers figured to be in good shape.
They came in with a distinct advantage on third downs over the Spartans on both sides of the ball.
"If you can't execute on third downs, it makes it very hard to win games," UW wide receiver Nick Toon said.
The 11th-ranked Badgers' failures on third down on offense and defense translated into a 34-24 loss to the 24th-ranked Spartans at Spartan Stadium.
In dropping its first game of the season, UW (4-1 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) left itself with no margin for error if it hopes to contend for a conference title.
"This is just a little adversity," free safety Aaron Henry said. "It's still early on in the season. We have a ton of the season left."
The Spartans (5-0, 1-0) played a second straight game without coach Mark Dantonio, who suffered a mild heart attack two weeks ago. He planned to watch the game from the press box until going back to the hospital on Thursday after a blood clot was discovered in his leg.
The Badgers came in ranked second in the conference in third-down conversions at 53.2 percent. The Spartans ranked next-to-last on defense in that category (40 percent).
It was the same on the other side of the ball, with UW's defense ranked second in opponent's third-down conversions at 27.5 percent and MSU's offense ranking last in third-down conversions at 31.8 percent.
In a complete role reversal, the Spartans converted nine of 18 third downs, allowing the worst team in the conference in time of possession to keep the ball for 36 minutes, 24 seconds and roll up a 444-292 edge in total yards.
Meanwhile, UW's offense converted only three of 11 (27.3 percent) third downs, losing despite a plus-three turnover margin to fall to 17-3 under coach Bret Bielema when the Badgers win the turnover battle.
"Third down going into this game was going to be a critical, critical point ... and also special teams," Bielema said.
The Badgers allowed a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown by Keshawn Martin in the second quarter, following a line-drive punt by Brad Nortman. That led to a 20-10 halftime deficit.
Still, it was the Badgers' failures on third downs that decided it, after taking momentum with a goal-line stand in the third quarter.
Freshman James White scored on a 34-yard dash around right end in the third quarter to pull UW within 20-17.
Linebacker Culmer St. Jean and defensive end J.J. Watt then teamed up to stop Le'Veon Bell on fourth-and-1. But UW's offense could not convert a third-and-6. They lined up both tight ends on the left side, then ran White behind them but he was stopped for a 3-yard gain.
"That's something we pride ourselves (on) is moving the chains and being efficient on third down," said UW quarterback Scott Tolzien, who completed just 11 of 25 passes for 127 yards. "(Saturday) we weren't. You see the outcome of it."
Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins carved up the Badgers on third down, completing 10 of 12 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. On the ensuing drive, he beat a blitz with a perfectly designed middle screen on third-and-10, to pick up 12 yards.
"That Badger package, it can be great for us when we play it right," Henry said of the third-down defense. "But those screens and those draws, they can be an Achilles' heel."
Credit Michigan State's offensive coaches for some good calls. After getting stopped on the fourth-and-goal, the Spartans went to a play-action pass on third-and-goal from the 1 on the next series. Henry lined up too far to the outside, giving tight end Charlie Gantt inside position for an easy pass by Cousins.
Still, the Badgers pulled within 27-24 on Tolzien's 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen with 10:53 left. All they needed was a stop from their defense to have a chance to win the game.
Instead, the Spartans converted three third downs, including ones from 9 and 11 yards to go. That set up another fourth-and-goal at the 1 and another nice call.
Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham made contact with safety Jay Valai, as if to block. Cornerback Niles Brinkley thought that meant run and abandoned Cunningham, who made the easy catch with 2:43 left.
"Whenever the wide receiver cracks (blocks inside), the corner is supposed to come off that (receiver)," Henry said. "I guess Niles thought the guy cracked Jay Valai. He put his hands on (Valai), so Niles just wanted to get outside for the run. It was set up by the play action. You've got to give credit to Michigan State, they set it up with the run."
Still, if the Badgers had gotten one third-down stop on the drive, they had a chance to win despite a subpar performance.
"It's obviously very frustrating as a defense when you want to get your offense back the ball, so you have a chance to win the game," Watt said. "We couldn't do that."