EAST LANSING, Mich. — The University of Wisconsin football team has been in this situation before.
But not quite this painful and certainly not as shocking.
For the second straight year, the Badgers' hopes for an undefeated regular season came to an end against Michigan State in Spartan Stadium.
This time, it was a 44-yard Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game to give the 15th-ranked Spartans their fourth straight win at home over the fourth-ranked Badgers, who dropped to 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten Conference.
The pass from Kirk Cousins deflected off two players in the end zone and into the arms of Michigan State wide receiver Keith Nichol near the goal line. Linebacker Mike Taylor and two teammates tried to hold Nichol outside of the end zone and the play was originally ruled down inside the 1-yard line, which would have forced overtime.
Instead, a television replay overturned the call and gave Michigan State the victory.
When UW linebacker Chris Borland was asked if he felt like his heart was ripped out after the call was changed, he said, "Yeah, and stomped on. It's crushing, deflating, it hurt really bad."
A year ago, the Badgers lost their conference opener 34-24 to the Spartans, then went on to win the rest of their regular-season games to reach the Rose Bowl.
"Been down this road, it's nothing I wanted to be down," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "These guys, they learn, they've got such high charachter, such great kids, it doesn't make sense right now what they just went through, what they just experienced, but it will over time. We'll have to put the pieces together for them."
There will be a handful of plays from this game that haunt the Badgers the rest of the regular season. After jumping to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, they gave up 23 points in the second quarter, including a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown with 37 seconds left in the first half.
The Badgers rallied from a 31-17 deficit in the fourth quarter, with quarterback Russell Wilson scoring on a 22-yard scramble, then finding running back Montee Ball for a 2-yard touchdown pass following another broken play.
Wilson, who had been close to flawless in the first six games, threw two interceptions and was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, which resulted in a safety. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns, while being sacked three times.
But he also kept battling and improvising, including a 42-yard pass to Nick Toon after a scramble with less than 2 minutes left, to set up the tying touchdown.
"I really felt confident after that second touchdown in the fourth quarter," Bielema said. "We take it into overtime, we probably roll."
Added guard Kevin Zeitler, "I was feeling pretty good, we had all of the momentum in the world."
However, instead of playing for overtime, Bielema tried to win the game in regulation and it cost him.
The Spartans (6-1, 3-0) got one last crack from their own 22-yard line with 1:19 left.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw for 290 yards and three scores, picked up a third-and-7 with a 9-yard completion to running back Le'Veon Bell. But a sack on the next play by defensive end Brendan Kelly and forced fumble left a second-and-20 after the Spartans recovered.
Bielema used all of his three timeouts after that — the first one coming on the next play — which ended up extending the game. He said he wanted another chance to return a punt after Jared Abbrederis nearly broke one, or to go for a block, after Derek Landisch nearly blocked a punt.
"We were trying to get an opportunity to win the game, get our punt return out there," Bielema said.
The most controversial timeout came on third-and-8 from the Michigan State 36 with 30 seconds left. Cousins hit Keshawn Martin with a shovel pass for 11 yards and a first down.
When asked if he had any regrets, in hindsight, about calling that timeout, Bielema stood firm.
"No, we were trying to win the game," he said. "No doubt in what we were doing. The best thing would have been to stop them on that first third down and give our offense an opportunity to get out there with one or two timeouts."
The defensive players also supported Bielema's thinking.
"I think it's the right thing to do," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Not many Hail Mary's are completed, so, you can live with that."
But this prayer was answered. Bielema used his third timeout to settle Abbrederis, normally a wide receiver, who was moved to this defensive formation when safety Shelton Johhson was injured earlier in the season.
"Abby worked earlier (when) Shelton got hurt, we didn't have a third safety we felt could go up and knock a ball down," Bielema said. "We really thought Abby was the best ball skills guy."
The formation is called, "Victory," but it didn't work this time. Abbrederis thought he batted the ball down, but replays showed it deflected off his right hand, then off the facemask of Michigan State wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, before caroming forward and being caught by Nichol.
"I don't think we did anything wrong, a physical play was made, not really a mistake," Borland said. "We batted the ball down, it just didn't hit the ground, went into their hands."
While the Badgers' national title hopes are finished, they are still in decent shape in the conference race thanks to the new division format. Penn State leads the Leaders Division at 4-0, but still must come to Camp Randall Stadium.
"Last year we couldn't say for sure," Bielema said of the team controlling its destiny after the loss to the Spartans. "Because of the way the two divisions are set, Michigan State obviously being a crossover game, (it) doesn't affect (us) as much as say Ohio State coming up, who is in our division."