EAST LANSING, Mich. — For almost 50 years, the University of Wisconsin football team and national championship were mutually exclusive entities.
If they appeared in the same sentence, it was by accident. If they were mentioned in the same breath, it was probably a punchline.
That all changed this season.
The addition of polished quarterback Russell Wilson to a veteran team coming off an 11-2 season ended the moratorium on national championship discussion. In a departure from UW tradition, coach Bret Bielema embraced and even encouraged such talk.
Before that talk had any validity, however, fourth-ranked UW had to prove itself on the road against a tough Big Ten Conference opponent like, say, 15th-ranked Michigan State Saturday night at Spartan Stadium. If the Badgers could win what appeared to be their toughest road game of the season, the possibilty of a national championship would finally be worthy of discussion.
Well, you can stop talking now. There will be no national championship for UW this season.
The Badgers started fast enough that they threatened to record a seventh blowout in seven games, but lost their composure during the second quarter and again at the very end to drop a 37-31 decision to the Spartans.
The final nail in UW's national championship coffin was the unpardonable sin of allowing a Hail Mary pass for a touchdown on the game's final play. During the subsequent booth review, the Badgers saw their entire season flash before their eyes.
"It was crazy," linebacker Chris Borland said. "It felt terrible. Just to sit there and watch it unfold, it was heart-wrenching."
UW fought hard but couldn't overcome collapses in the second quarter and again on Michigan State's final drive. Perhaps the Badgers got ahead of themselves and forgot they had to make plays and win games to reach the BCS final. Perhaps they panicked at times after not playing a true road game all season. Perhaps they expected to lose in a stadium where strange things always happen to them.
Whatever the reason, the Badgers didn't look like a national championship team against the Spartans. National championship teams don't take quarters off, don't give back the momentum once they've seized it and don't lose their cool when the game is on the line. The Badgers did all of the above Saturday.
UW took a quick 14-0 lead, silenced the juiced-up Spartans crowd and threatened to remove all suspense from another prime-time television show quickly, just like it had against Nebraska. But just when it looked like they might bury the Spartans, the Badgers turned into the anti-Badgers on their next four possessions.
Normally as consistent and error-free as any team in the Big Ten, UW ended the first half with an interception, a safety, a blocked field-goal attempt and a blocked punt for a touchdown. Indeed, the mistake-filled second quarter was all it took to reinvigorate the Spartans and put the Badgers' national title hopes on hold for at least another year.
"Everything that could have gone wrong did in that second quarter," Borland said. "You can't make mistakes on the road in the Big Ten. It's going to catch up with you."
That's what happens to UW at Spartan Stadium, where it is 0-4 since 2004, including last year when it suffered its only regular-season loss here. Now the Badgers are staring at another historically hard-to-win game — at Ohio State Saturday night.
"It's gonna hurt; it's supposed to hurt," guard Kevin Zeitler said. "We can't let this loss define our season. We have to keep moving forward, keep working. We're going to try to finish off the season strong."
The troubles began when UW was driving for a third score and a possible 21-0 lead. Wilson, UW's sensational transfer, became a mere mortal for the first time, throwing an interception when he and receiver Nick Toon had a miscommunication, then drawing an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone to give the Spartans a safety and their first points. The two special teams gaffes followed in short order and the Badgers trailed 23-14 at the half.
To his credit, Wilson got the Badgers back into the game in the fourth quarter, leading a rally that forged a 31-31 tie. However, with Bielema aiding Michigan State's chances by calling some questionable timeouts — he said he was going for the win and wanted to give his punt return team one more chance — instead of playing for overtime, the Spartans drove for the game-winning score.
UW's season isn't over by any means. It can still reach the conference championship game in Indianapolis and possibly a BCS game.
"We can't play for the national championship," Borland said, "but we just have to regroup and do everything we can to make it to Indianapolis."
The chances of UW doing that remain strong. After Saturday, however, any talk of a national championship is no longer allowed.