The odds against such a finish are considerable. They favored overtime.
The play began with 4 seconds remaining, the score tied at 31 and the line of scrimmage the Wisconsin 44-yard line. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a Hail Mary pass that was deflected out of the end zone and into the hands of the Spartans’ Keith Nichol near the goal line.
Nichol pushed forward as Wisconsin defenders pushed back. The officials ruled in favor of the Wisconsin defenders. But a video review determined otherwise: Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31.
“I knew it immediately,” said Brandon Kinnie. “I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s across.’ ”
“Absolutely, I thought he was in the end zone before they even reviewed it,” Kenny Bell said. “I thought they (the Spartans) should have charged the field . . . the second he caught it.”
Kinnie and Bell play football for Nebraska, of course. They’re both wide receivers. And Saturday night, after returning to Lincoln following a 41-14 victory at Minnesota in the afternoon, they were among many Huskers who watched the Michigan State-Wisconsin game on television.
They probably would have watched any game. But Wisconsin-Michigan State had special significance. Nebraska lost at Wisconsin three weeks ago, 48-17. The Huskers play Michigan State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. And like Nebraska, the Spartans are in the Big Ten’s Legends Division.
In fact, Michigan State leads the division with a 3-0 conference record. Had the Spartans lost, there would have been a four-way tie, including Nebraska. Even so, Bell wasn’t cheering for Wisconsin. “I didn’t care who won because I know we control our destiny,” he said.
“We want to win out. We didn’t look at it as, if Wisconsin wins, we could lose and (now) we have to win. That’s not the attitude. We want to win every football game we play.”
Because Michigan State won, the Huskers might have to win all of their remaining games in order to play for the Big Ten championship at Indianapolis on Dec. 3. A Wisconsin victory would have provided a little margin for error. Nebraska has what appears to be a more difficult schedule to finish up.
Michigan State’s final four opponents have a combined 2-12 conference record, while Nebraska’s final four have a combined record of 8-6.
Even so, the Huskers’ Ben Cotton wasn’t pulling for Wisconsin on Saturday night, either.
“To me it personally doesn’t matter,” the junior tight end said. “This team (Nebraska) realizes we’re in control of our own future right now, and each week’s going to be a test for us. I know people say we’re supposed to be pulling for Wisconsin to try to help us in our division, stuff like that.
“But we know we’re in control of our future, and we’re confident in what we’re doing.”
Michigan State, its only loss at Notre Dame (31-13), climbed to ninth in the Associated Press rankings this week, four places ahead of Nebraska. That’s good, according to Cotton. “I’d like a team to come in here as good as they can be, you know, present us with the best test that they can,” he said.
“When you get a really good team coming in, playing their best and hopefully you’re playing your best when you play them, so it makes you look better if you do come out on top.”
The Huskers mirror their coach. “Our guys understand what’s at stake,” Bo Pelini said at his weekly news conference on Monday. “Every game is a must-win. That’s how we look at it. If you win all of your games, you control your own destiny. If you don’t, then you lose control.
“It’s pretty obvious. Our guys understand what’s at stake.”
Pelini didn’t watch the game on television. “I saw the highlights,” he said. “Crazy play, huh? I don’t know. It was a good football game. Great for Michigan State. Bad deal for Wisconsin.”
Bad deal for Nebraska, too, depending on how you look at it.
Kinnie didn’t look at it that way, though.
“I was asking some of the players on the team, ‘Hey, who do you want (to win)?’ But I really didn’t care, you know. Michigan State won, so I guess that makes our game that much better,” he said. “But it is what it is. I don’t pay attention to stuff like that. I just play ball, so I just go with it.”