Big Ten Football Championship Preview

Dec. 1, 2011

2011 BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP

LEGENDS | No. 13 Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 B1G)
vs.
LEADERS | No. 15 Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2 B1G)


Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011 • 8:17 p.m. ET
Indianapolis, Ind. • Lucas Oil Stadium (66,268)
FOX • Announcers: Gus Johnson, Charles Davis,
Tim Brewster, Dhani Jones

Series: Michigan State leads 29-21
Last Meeting: Oct. 22, 2011: MSU 37, WIS 31

Tale of the Tape
SCORING
30.2 Points/Game 44.8
15.4 Points Allowed/Game 15.2
31:35 Time of Possession 32:07
RUSHING
139.0 Yards/Game 246.7
102.5 Yards Allowed/Game 133.7
17 Touchdowns 43
PASSING
244.7 Yards/Game 230.4
164.2 Yards Allowed/Game 144.5
238/370 Completions/Attempts 196/277
64.3 Completion Percentage 70.8
22/6 TDs/INTs 29/4
TURNOVERS
22 Takeaways 22
13 Giveaways 8
"ROCKET" REVISITED


37

No. 15 Spartans
Upset No. 4 Badgers
Oct. 22, 2011
East Lansing, Mich.


31

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A heave. A carom. A desperate struggle for the last few inches.

And after further review, a miraculous win by Michigan State.

Keith Nichol caught a 44-yard pass from Kirk Cousins on the game's final play for a tiebreaking touchdown, giving the 15th-ranked Spartans a 37-31 victory against No. 4 Wisconsin. MORE>>>

PLAYERS TO WATCH


QB Kirk Cousins | 2nd All-B1G
WR B.J. Cunningham | 2nd All-B1G
DB Johnny Adams | 1st All-B1G
DB Trenton Robinson | 1st All-B1G
DT Jerel Worthy | 1st All-B1G
DE William Gholston | 2nd All-B1G
LB Denicos Allen | 2nd All-B1G
DB Isaiah Lewis | 2nd All-B1G


QB Russell Wilson | B1G Griese-Brees QB of the Year, 1st All-B1G
RB Montee Ball
| B1G Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, B1G Ameche-Dayne RB of the Year, Unanimous 1st All-B1G
WR Nick Toon | 2nd All-B1G
TE Jacob Pedersen | 2nd All-B1G
DB Antonio Fenelus | 1st All-B1G
DB Aaron Henry | 1st All-B1G
LB Mike Taylor | 1st All-B1G
LB Chris Borland |1st All-B1G



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. 
 
Wisconsin’s offense rank fourth nationally in scoring (44.8), 10th in rushing (246.7), 12th in total yards (477.1) and 63rd in passing (230.4), which also stands fourth-best in the conference.  The Badgers are led by the tandem of quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball.  This past week, Ball was named the inaugural winner of the Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year award as well as the conference’s Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year honor.  Wilson was named the recipient of the inaugural Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year Trophy.  Ball, with 34 total touchdowns this season, leads the nation in scoring at 17 points per game. He is the conference’s new record holder for touchdowns in a season and is just five behind the FBS record set in 1988 by Barry Sanders. Wilson is on pace to set the new NCAA record for pass efficiency, currently boasting a rating of 192.90. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 36 straight games, tying the NCAA record.  Ball, who ran for 115 yards and one touchdown against the Spartans in October, ranks second in the country with 1,622 rushing yards and third with an average of 135.2 yards per game.  Wisconsin also has two of the top four players in all-purpose yardage.  Ball leads the league at 155.8 yards per game, while wideout Jared Abbrederis is fourth at 119.7.  Abbrederis, who hauls in an average of four balls for 62.4 yards per game, also paces the country in punt returns with an average of 16.4 yards per return.  UW’s other aerial threats are senior Nick Toon and sophomore tight end Jacob Pedersen. Toon ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receptions (4.7) and receiving yards (71.6) per game, while Pedersen’s eight TD receptions this year are tied for the most of any tight end in the country.
 
The Michigan State defense is also one of the nation’s top units.  The Spartans are third nationally in total defense (266.7), sixth in scoring defense (15.4), seventh in pass efficiency defense (104.9), eighth in pass defense (164.2) and sacks per game (3.1), and 11th against the rush (102.5). MSU also leads the Big Ten with 16 interceptions, three of which have been returned for touchdowns. In addition, the Spartans have netted six fumble recoveries and 38 sacks for a plus-9 turnover margin. Max Bullough has 80 tackles on the year, good for 6.7 stops per game, while Isaiah Lewis has 69 tackles and four interceptions, tying teammate Trenton Robinson for the conference lead in picks.  Look for this Spartan combo, along with first-team All-Big Ten cornerbacker Johnny Adams, to disrupt Wisconsin’s Wilson as two of the three interceptions the Badger quarterback tossed this year came against Michigan State.  First-team All-Big Ten selection Jerel Worthy is there to apply pressure in the pass rush, along with Denicos Allen and his seven sacks as well as William Gholston and his11.0 tackles for loss this year.

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.