While hopes of reaching the BCS championship game have long been lost for Wisconsin and Michigan State, a trip to the Rose Bowl is still an awfully nice reward. The two schools will meet in a first for the Big Ten conference as the Badgers look to avenge a regular season loss to the Spartans in the first Big Ten Football Championship Game, which will be played on a neutral field in Indianapolis, Indiana (Lucas Oil Stadium).
When Last We Met
Kirk Cousins heaved a Hail Mary pass on the final play of a tie game and Keith Nichol found a way to not only grab the pass but fought three Wisconsin defenders to break the end zone by a margin so minuscule that it took an official video review to determine whether or not he in fact scored the touchdown. Michigan State handed Wisconsin their first loss of the season, 37-31.
The Spartans played a clean game, not getting a penalty called against them all game while Wisconsin was called for six penalties. The Badgers also turned the football over twice, but Russell Wilson has not thrown an interception since this game. Wilson and Wisconsin jumped out to an early lead but the Spartans roared back to take what looked to be a commanding lead, and Wisconsin faced their first form of adversity of the year. With Michigan State up 31-17 in the fourth quarter, Wilson rushed 22 yards for a touchdown and Montee Ball tied the game with a touchdown with under 90 seconds left, which is when Kirk Cousins and the Michigan State offense looked to avoid overtime by moving in to field goal range.
They did not quite get there, but they were able to pick up the game’s winning touchdown on may be the play of the season in college football.
How They Got Here
Wisconsin entered the season as the Big Ten favorite by many, especially after landing the services of Russell Wilson at quarterback. The Badgers got off to a quick start this season by blowing out inferior opponents at home, including UNLV, Oregon State and South Dakota and a neutral field game against a Northern Illinois team that will be playing for the MAC championship Friday night.
The Badgers opened Big Ten play by rudely welcoming Nebraska with a 48-17 defeat and after a blowout win against Indiana the Badgers hit their road block on the road. Michigan State and Ohio State handed Wisconsin their only losses of the season in back-to-back weeks using late-game heroics. Since losing in Columbus to the underdog Buckeyes the Badgers went on a roll by blasting Purdue and Minnesota, pulling out a win at Illinois and smashing Penn State in the deciding game in the Leaders Division.
Michigan State had two easy games to start their season with Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic, which may have played a role in not preparing them for a motivated Notre Dame team. The Fighting Irish smacked Michigan State 31-13 but the Spartans won their next four games, including the win against Wisconsin and adding a 10-7 win at Ohio Satte and a 28-14 win at home against Michigan. Nebraska scored a 24-3 win that took the steam out of the Spartans a week after the Hail Mary win against the Badgers, but Michigan State handled business the rest of the way against Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern.
All Russell Wilson Everything vs. The Understated Kirk Cousins
Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson is as close to a super star quarterback as Wisconsin has ever seen. Wilson came to Madison with a solid background with his playing days at N.C. State and added a new dimension to the Wisconsin offense right from the start. Before the season even started the All Russell Wilson Everything campaign was in full operation. He certainly not disappoint, throwing for 2,692 yards and completing 72% of his passes for 28 touchdowns and just three interceptions. While his passing yardage went down this season compared to last year with N.C. State, he was proven to be much more effective all around with less pressure on him in Wisconsin’s offense. Wilson threw 11 fewer interceptions and completed 14% more passes for almost four more yards per attempt compared to 2010 with the Wolfpack. It’s no wonder Wilson was named a first-team All-Big Ten quarterback.
While Wilson remains the hot name in the Big Ten, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins has continued to mature and develop as a leader that nobody is really talking about nationally. Unlike Wilson, Cousins has marginally improved in his game if just looking at the numbers on the stat sheet. After this weekend he will (likely) have eclipsed his passing total from last season (needs just 90 passing yards to match last season’s 2,825 passing yardage) and his completion percentage has dipped 2.6% this season, which is not enough for me to throw up a caution flag when he is still completing 64.3% of his passes. What stands out to me is his touchdowns and interception totals. To date Cousins has thrown 21 touchdowns (20 last season) and has been intercepted six times, compared to 10 times a year ago. He has also taken 14 sacks, compared to 20 last season.
To me Cousins has been as steady as ever and he is the right kind of guy to lead this Michigan State offense. Is he going to make the fantastic play that gets added to the highlight clips for the rest of the week? Other than that one moment in the sun with this season’s Hail Mary, probably not. But he is likely to find a guy for a four or five yard gain when the offense needs three yards, and he is not likely to make too many mistakes. If the Spartans are down early, Cousins has the mentality to get through it.
Not to say Wilson doesn’t of course. Both players fit their teams perfectly right now.
Give Montee Ball the Ball
It seems so easy for Wisconsin. Give Montee Ball the football, and good things will happen.
Ball has put together a season very much worthy of Heisman consideration for a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, although his Heisman buzz was somewhat slow out of the gates in the shadows of Wilson under center. This season, when Wilson gets 20 rushing attempts or more, the Badgers are undefeated. Since the start of Big Ten play this season Ball had under 20 attempts three times, and Wisconsin lost two of those games. Granted, Ball was banged up against Michigan State and Ohio State, not being able to get him the football as often for Wisconsin may have been the factor that evened the game for their opponents from Michigan State and Ohio State, on the road. those two games were also the only times Ball was limited to one touchdown run in a game this season.
Wisconsin was able to get by one game with fewer than 20 Montee Ball rushing attempts against Indiana but look at what Ball did in the final four games of the season.
Against Purdue and Illinois Ball rushed for over 200 yards and against Minnesota and Penn State he rushed for over 150 yards, and he scored at least two touchdowns in all four final games, including four touchdowns against Penn State.
Michigan State and Wisconsin have a knack for playing close games with each other since Bret Bielema and Mark Dantonio have taken over the programs. Since 2007 (Dantonio’s first season at Michigan State), the Spartans own a 3-2 advantage in the series and they have been separated by a total of six points in those games.
Michigan State was also a little bitter about being left out of the BCS games last season, despite splitting Big Ten championship honors with Wisconsin (won in a head-to-head match-up with Wisconsin) and Ohio State (did not play). The Badgers went to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State played in the Sugar Bowl. Michigan State instead went to the Capital One Bowl, where they were steamrolled by a very good Alabama team (that just happened to be the defending BCS champions and happens to be very good this season if you have not noticed). Now Michigan State gets a chance to claim the Big Ten title outright, and they could not be happier to be in this position.
What better way to add a new chapter to this series than by ushering in the Big Ten championship game and ultimately declaring top bragging rights in the conference?
Both teams are playing well right now, but Wisconsin just seems to be playing like a team on a mission right now. They totally dismantled a Penn State defense that looked like a middle of the pack MAC team (they are far better than how they looked against Wisconsin) and if Wilson and Ball are able to have a field day once again, there are not many teams that will be able to stop them.
I think Michigan State is more than capable of winning this game, especially with a defense that has only allowed 15.4 points per game this season. I think their offense is gritty and capable of moving the football against Wisconsin. But if this comes down to one important offensive drive, I think there is plenty of tricks up Bret Bielema’s sleeves to find a way to get Wilson and Ball in to scoring position with a game on the line.
Wisconsin 27, Michigan State 23
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