EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State football coaches and players have bristled over the years at the same-old-Spartans label that dogged the program following disappointing games and seasons.
The 18th-ranked Spartans might not have to worry about reading or hearing that anymore.
Michigan State rallied from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Wisconsin 25-24 on Saturday, improving to 8-2 for just the second time since the Spartans were national powers in the mid-1960s.
“We wouldn’t have won that game in the past,” said Brett Swenson, who kicked the winning field goal with seven seconds left. “We’re closing games and you have to give our coaches credit for that.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio prepped Swenson to make a clutch kick during Thursday’s practice, telling the entire team to surround the kicker and attempt to rattle him.
“I made that kick, too, but it went off the left post,” Swenson said. “This one went in cleaner and I’m so happy for our team and our program.”
The comeback sustained the Spartans’ hopes of closing the regular season at Penn State with a chance to earn at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990.
But first, Michigan State (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) has to avoid a letdown Saturday at home against Purdue (3-6, 1-4) in its home finale.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, is hoping the latest collapse doesn’t carry over into its final regular-season games at Indiana and against Minnesota and Cal Poly at home.
If the last-place Badgers (4-5, 1-5) win all three of those games, they’ll play in a bowl for a seventh straight year. Two more victories likely will be sufficient.
“You don’t want this season to keep going down the drain,” receiver David Gilreath said. “You want something good to come out of this. I guess a bowl game would do that.”
Wisconsin wasn’t expected to have trouble merely qualifying for a lower-tier bowl, starting the season No. 13 in The Associated Press poll and moving up to No. 9 with a 3-0 start.
Then the Badgers started to fall apart by wasting a 19-point, second-half lead at Michigan and losing their first of four straight games.
They seemed to take a step toward a turnaround by beating Illinois and taking a 24-13 lead at Michigan State with 9:19 left.
But Wisconsin unraveled and coach Bret Bielema led the way, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following a delay of game penalty to give the Spartans a 20-yard jump on a touchdown drive that pulled them within five points.
What did Bielema say to an official to draw a 15-yard penalty?
“I told him in my opinion he wasn’t doing a good job,” Bielema said.
The Badgers damaged their hold on a double-digit lead with 12 penalties for 121 yards, including a holding call that negated a run to the Michigan State 4 that likely would have sealed the victory.
“This is the same crew we had at Ohio State,” Bielema said of the Oct. 4 game in Madison that the Buckeyes won 20-17.