EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was no surprise that the team that ran for the most yards, converted its third downs like clockwork, controlled the football for long stretches, made big gains on play-action passes and slowed down the opponent's running game wound up winning Saturday.
The only surprise was that the team in question wasn't the University of Wisconsin.
The 11th-ranked Badgers dropped a 34-24 decision to 24th-ranked Michigan State in their Big Ten Conference opener Saturday at Spartan Stadium in large part because the Spartans were better at playing UW-style football than the Badgers were.
In fact, Michigan State was everything UW aspires to be — physical, disciplined and assignment-sure down after down after down. The Badgers couldn't make the same claim.
"I told our guys in the locker room that they got beat today by a team that played better than they did," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "We're a team that if we do things uncharacteristic of what we are, we're going to meet failure."
The Badgers not only met failure Saturday, they walked right up and introduced themselves to it. The first warning sign that UW wasn't itself came when James White muffed the opening kickoff. But that was just the start.
Wide receiver Nick Toon dropped a perfectly thrown third-down pass on UW's first series. Tailback John Clay fumbled a handoff on third-and-1 when an unblocked linebacker showed up in his face. The defenders bit on Michigan State's play-action passes like they hadn't eaten in a week.
"I think in the first half we just were unaccustomed to the crowd noise," tight end Lance Kendricks said. "We mimicked it in practice and all that, but I think some guys just weren't really focused and detailed on what they needed to do."
Some guys? More like a whole bunch of guys.
"This loss wasn't from one player or one coach or any one play," Bielema said. "It was 11 guys coached by all my coaches for four quarters that resulted in a loss."
That just makes it worse. If it had been one or two players or one or two big plays that caused UW to lose, it would be easier to understand. Because the failure to execute properly was a team-wide issue, it was a sign that the Badgers simply weren't ready to play when the whistle blew.
That's mind-boggling given the magnitude of the game. In addition to being mirror images of one another, UW and Michigan State are widely thought to be among the few teams capable of unseating five-time incumbent Ohio State in the Big Ten race. That almost made this a game of survival.
"This was one that was an important game," guard John Moffitt said. "It really could have helped the momentum."
Instead, the Badgers left people wondering why they weren't ready to hit the ground running in what might have been their most important game of the season.
After playing three of their four non-conference games against teams that were overmatched physically (all except Arizona State) and treating the final non-conference game (against Austin Peay) like it was an NFL exhibition, the Badgers weren't ready for the combination of size, speed and intensity they will see in the Big Ten.
"It increased so much," safety Aaron Henry said. "For the most part, Arizona State was pretty tough, but this Big Ten season, it's a whole new ballgame. This was pretty much what could have put us in position to either have a great season or not have a good season. Unfortunately, we started off on the losing end."
The Badgers have only their administration to blame. With a non-conference schedule that offered only one legitimate test, the only way they could simulate the level of play they would see in the Big Ten was for the ones to go against the ones in practice, something the players said they did last week.
Unfortunately, by then it was too late.