MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin's ground game is suddenly stuck and quarterback Joel Stave is nursing a bad shoulder.
But there's one bright spot for the Badgers as they head into the bye week: They still have a clear path to the Big Ten title game.
Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) trails Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division after a 16-13 overtime loss to Michigan State on Saturday. But neither the Buckeyes nor the Nittany Lions are eligible for the postseason, and the Badgers have a two-game lead on Indiana.
"This group, after what we've been through earlier in the year, felt they were on a mission to get to a special place, and those things are still in front of us," coach Bret Bielema said.
"The options that we had before today are still there as far as getting to where we want to be, but we just like winning. 7-2 sounds better than 6-3, so we've just got to make sure we don't lose anybody along the way, be smart, take care of ourselves, get ourselves healthy, take advantage of the bye week as best we can and get ready to play on the road at Indiana."
The Badgers play at Indiana on Nov. 10, then finish the season with games against Ohio State and Penn State. Indiana plays at Iowa next weekend, then finishes with home games against Penn State and in-state rival Purdue.
"Our guys invested a lot into that game," Bielema said. "To go nine straight weeks and then be on the verge of getting everything back to where we wanted to be is difficult to swallow, but it's probably a good time for a bye week to get ourselves healthy."
The biggest concern for the Badgers is Stave, who injured his left shoulder when he was driven into the ground on the opening play of the second half. Stave was taken to the locker room immediately to be evaluated, and appeared to be wearing a brace when he returned to the sideline.
Danny O'Brien wasn't much more impressive than before he lost his job to Stave in the third game of the season. He was 5 of 11, but 0 of 2 in overtime, when Wisconsin was forced to settle for Kyle French's 43-yard field goal. Five plays later, Andrew Maxwell threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Bennie Fowler to give Michigan State the victory.
"We have trust in each other. He came in and did a good job for us," receiver Jared Abbrederis said. "We just weren't able to get things going."
The struggles on the ground were particularly shocking, coming after Montee Ball and James White ran all over Purdue and Minnesota. The duo combined for 712 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.
There are running backs who don't put up those numbers in full seasons, let alone in a pair of games.
But Ball and White never got out of neutral against the Spartans. The Badgers gained a measly 19 yards on the ground — 19! That's their fewest in five years, and well below their average of almost 200 a game.
Ball gained 46 yards while White managed only 16.
"It was very tough because after a seven, eight-yard run, I feel like the momentum was on our side. The next play would be a loss," Ball said. "They are a good defense, but we weren't executing."
Take the decisive drive in the fourth quarter.
Marcus Cromartie forced a fumble and the Badgers recovered at the Michigan State 18. But a penalty wiped out what would have been a 14-yard touchdown run by White and pushed Wisconsin back to the Michigan State 19. Ball then failed to gain on one carry and lost two yards on the next, and all the Badgers had to show for the turnover and ideal field position was French's 39-yard field goal.
Maxwell responded with his — and Michigan State's — best drive of the day, capping an 8-of-9 performance with a 5-yard pass to Le'Veon Bell, who bulldozed his way into the end zone to tie the game at 10 with a minute left.
"There were plenty of reasons why we lost the game," White said. "But, definitely, putting ourselves behind the chains, you can't really get the ball moving."
But the Badgers have a week to get themselves back on track, knowing their hopes of returning to the Big Ten title game are still very much alive.
"It's a tough loss going into the bye week," said Jacob Pedersen, who had Wisconsin's only touchdown, a 31-yard reception from Stave early in the second quarter. "We've got to bounce back and get better."