Big Ten Football Championship Preview
Dec. 1, 2011
Legends Divison Champion Michigan State and Leaders Division Champion Wisconsin are set to square off once again this season, meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday for the inaugural Big Ten Football Championship Game. For the first time in 18 years, almost to the day, the Spartans and Badgers will face each other on a neutral field. UW owns the only other meeting outside of East Lansing and Madison, winning 41-20 on Dec. 4, 1993, in off all places, Tokyo, Japan. But that contest is certainly not the one that comes to mind when fans think about the two schools. What comes to mind is that mid-October evening this past fall when the 15th-ranked Spartans were hosting No. 4 Wisconsin, and with four seconds left in a 31-31 tie game, “it” happened. Some still can’t define what “it” actually was, but on the surface, “it” was nothing shy of a Michigan State miracle – a 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol for the game-winner. Fittingly, MSU’s play call was called “Rocket,” so perhaps that lent to “it” being so special.
But it wasn’t just that pass. It was the entire game.
Wisconsin jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the Spartans rallied for 23 unanswered points to take a 23-14 advantage. The Badgers added a field goal in the third quarter, cutting the MSU lead to six. The Spartans added a touchdown early in the fourth, extending the lead to 14, 31-17, following a two-point try. The Badgers rallied to score twice, tying the game with 1:26 left, but Michigan State let “Rocket” sail into the end zone as time expired for the 37-31 victory.
That regular-season contest left us all wanting more. And now here we are. Two teams that shared the Big Ten Championship last year now have the opportunity to battle 60 more minutes this season to determine the Big Ten’s best of 2011.
The winner’s prize? The brand new Stagg Championship Trophy and the chance to play in either the Rose Bowl Game or Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game.
Both Michigan State and Wisconsin found their way to Indianapolis by storming out of the gates early and finishing strong.
As the Big Ten’s only one-loss team in league play, MSU opened the conference season with three straight victories, including two over a pair of top-10 teams. The Spartans opened the conference slate with a road win at Ohio State before posting home victories over top-10 foes Michigan and Wisconsin. Following its only conference setback at Nebraska, Michigan State reeled off four straight victories to end the season as the outright Legends Division champion.
Wisconsin opened its run to the Big Ten Championship Game with consecutive home wins over Nebraska and Indiana. The next two weeks saw the Badgers suffer last-second setbacks at Michigan State and Ohio State, bringing their Big Ten record to 2-2. Similar to Michigan State, the Badgers won their next four contests by an average of 30.75 points to clinch a share of the Leaders Division and the tiebreaker over Penn State to earn the Big Ten title game berth.
Overall, Saturday marks the 51st meeting between the two schools with Michigan State holding a 29-21 advantage. Since 2000, the teams have met 10 times with each having won five matchups. Michigan State, which has won seven Big Ten titles, looks for consecutive Big Ten crowns for the first time since the 1965 and 1966 seasons. Wisconsin, winners of 12 Big Ten Championships in program history, looks for back-to-back conference titles for the first time since 1998 and 1999. As seen in the regular-season outing, history tells us Saturday’s title fight will be a high-scoring battle, despite both teams boasting two of the nation’s top defenses. In the last nine games between the two squads they have combined to score 65.6 points per game. The winning team has scored at least 34 points in eight of those contests.
Michigan State ranks second in the conference in passing (244.7), fourth in scoring (30.2), fifth in total offense (383.7), and 12th in rushing (139.0). Quarterback Kirk Cousins has paced the Green and White all season with 222.5 total yards per game, which ranks seventh in the conference. His passing average of 227.9 yards per game is third-best in the league, as is his passer rating of 149.0. Cousins, who threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns against Wisconsin in October, has thrown 10 touchdowns and one interception over the last four wins, while completing 64.3 percent of his 339 attempts for 21 touchdowns and six interceptions on the year. Cousins’ top two targets, B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, finished the conference season ranked in the top 10 in receiving, with Cunningham third (and 20th nationally) at 93.8 yards per game and Martin sixth at nearly 4.4 receptions per contest. Cunningham owns a school-record 206 career receptions and needs just 88 more receiving yards to pass Andre Rison as the Spartans' all-time leader. He had six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown in the October win over Wisconsin. Despite the Spartans’ conference rushing rank, MSU can still get it done on the ground with the help of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker. Bell rushes for 66.2 yards per game, boasts a 5.4 yards-per-carry average, and has found the end zone 10 times this year. Baker, who takes to the turf when Bell needs a breather, averages 52.0 rushing yards each time out, and owns four scores on the season.
The Badger defense is also highly touted, ranking third in the country in pass defense (144.5), fourth in scoring defense (15.2) and seventh in total yards allowed (278.2). In defending the pass, UW has allowed fewer than 150.0 yards passing just once since 1991. Ironically, Michigan State was the only team to pass for more than 200 yards against the Badgers this season. Overall, UW has held eight of its 12 opponents under 300 yards of total offense and the Badgers are 31-2 under head coach Bret Bielema when accomplishing that feat. The secondary was slow to start the season in terms of turnovers produced, garnering just one takeaway and zero interceptions in the first three games. In the last nine games, however, the Badgers have 14 picks and seven fumble recoveries. Free safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus have combined for 15 INTs in their careers, and teamed to total seven picks this season. Fenelus is tied for the Big Ten lead and 15th nationally with four interceptions and has nine in his career, which is tied for eighth in school history. Linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland rank 1-2 in the conference with 10.7 and 10.3 tackles per game, respectively. Borland is also tied for second in the Big Ten and 14th nationally with four forced fumbles, while Taylor owns the top single-game mark in the league this year with 22 stops against Ohio State.
As for the kicking game, expect a lot of exciting returns as Abbrederis is the nation’s top punt returner, while Michigan State’s Martin ranks second in the conference 11.8 yards per return. In kickoffs, the Spartans’ Nick Hill ranks fifth in the Big Ten with an average of 25.6 yards per return, while Abbrederis is eighth at 23.1. Wisconsin senior Brad Nortman is fourth in conference punting with 41.8 yards each kick and MSU freshman Mike Sadler is eighth at 39.6. When it comes to the 3-pointers, MSU’s Dan Conroy is fifth in the league in field goals, having made 15 of his 18 attempts (73.7). Since the regular-season contest against Michigan State, Wisconsin attempted just three field goals, all of which were good, in the final five games of the year. Kyle French and Philip Welch have combined to make 7-of-10 tries this season.