(Eds: With AP Photos.) By NOAH TRISTER AP Sports Writer The play helped send Michigan State to a division title and could have ruined Wisconsin's season.
With the score tied on the final snap, Kirk Cousins rolled out to his right and threw the ball deep toward the end zone. Keith Nichol made the catch after a carom and fought to reach the goal line, giving the Spartans a 37-31 victory over the Badgers in one of college football's best games this season.
If the rematch is half as good as that October thriller, the Big Ten should have quite a show in store when No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin meet again in the inaugural conference title game Saturday night in Indianapolis.
''I don't think you could draw it up any better than two teams that came down to the last play,'' Nichol said. ''Winner takes all.''
When the Spartans and Badgers met earlier in the season, they were already eyeing a spot in this weekend's title game. Wisconsin, in fact, was undefeated and averaging over 50 points a game.
Although the regular-season clash is best remembered for the stunning finish, it was entertaining throughout, with both teams rallying from two-touchdown deficits.
''Michigan State and Wisconsin are the two best teams in this conference,'' Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. ''That is without question, I believe.''
The Spartans were coming off an emotional win over Michigan the first time they played Wisconsin, and Michigan State looked flat at first, falling behind 14-0. Then the Spartans turned the game around in the second quarter with special teams plays that shifted the momentum.
After pinning Wisconsin back with a punt, Michigan State forced an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety that made it 14-2. Later in the quarter, the Spartans blocked a field goal, and just before halftime, Michigan State scored on a blocked punt to take a 23-14 lead.
It was 31-17 when the Badgers finally regained their footing. Quarterback Russell Wilson ran for a touchdown and threw for another in the fourth quarter to tie the game.
That set up the finish that still lingers for Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.
''It's not like it's running through my mind 24 hours a day, but it was a great highlight on ESPN for about three weeks there - I swear it was on every commercial,'' Bielema said. ''So it's kind of forced on you in certain ways. But I think if you are a person that takes things personally, you're going to remember things like that your entire life. It's kind of what motivates us as coaches.''
The play was called ''Rocket'' - Cousins was able to buy enough time for his receivers to make it down the field. His pass bounced off wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, who was in the end zone, and was caught out of the air by Nichol, who was a few feet away on the other side of the goal line.
After making the catch, Nichol struggled to reach the end zone. He was initially ruled short, but Michigan State was awarded the winning touchdown after a review.
''You've got to be fortunate, obviously, or blessed if you're going to get that pass,'' Dantonio said. ''But at the same time, it's a play. They all count.''
A week after losing to Michigan State, Wisconsin stumbled again, falling at Ohio State on another long pass in the final minute. Since then, the Badgers have been dominant again.
Last weekend, with a spot in the title game on the line, Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) routed Penn State 45-7. That gives the Badgers another chance to face Michigan State (10-2, 7-1) - this time with a Rose Bowl berth on the line.
It's been just over a month since Nichol's catch, and he and his teammates will always have that moment. But this week, the slate is wiped clean.
''We've kind of moved past that,'' Wisconsin offensive lineman Travis Frederick said. ''We watched it in film, we kind of talked about it in meetings here and there, and at that point it goes away. You've got to focus on the next game. If you let stuff like that linger, that's when you kind of fall into a trap. And we do a good job of staying focused.''