Originally posted on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 11/30/11

The Big Ten has been a mixed bag this season, with several teams looking dominant at times but struggling when least expected.  The inaugural Big Ten Championship Game pits two teams who have been through some topsy-turvy weeks against one another.

(And courtesy of our friends at Verizon, you have a chance to win four free tickets to the game, but you need to act quickly. Click here.)

Wisconsin and Michigan State also have quite a bit of excitement in their recent history against each other, courtesy of Spartans’ quarterback Kirk Cousins’ Hail Mary touchdown pass to Keith Nichol as time expired to beat the Badgers in East Lansing on October 22.

That game was the most thrilling game of the Big Ten’s conference season, so it’s only fitting that these two teams get a chance to go at it again, this time on the neutral field of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

A trip to the Rose Bowl is the prize, and we can only hope the game comes close to the drama of the first matchup.

Things to consider for Saturday

It’s hard to imagine a more exciting game than the one we saw last month featuring these eventual division winners, but all of the things that made that game so great are still in play for this weekend.

In that game, Wisconsin came out hot on the road, scoring on their opening drive and again after a Michigan State fumble, to open up a 14-0 lead after the first quarter.

We can only hope for another moment this exciting.

Michigan State responded by forcing Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson into an intentional grounding penalty in his own end zone, which gave the Spartans a safety and their first points.  From then on, the rest of the first half belonged to Michigan State, as they scored 3 consecutive touchdowns (KeShawn Martin rush, Cousins to B.J. Cunningham pass, blocked punt return) to lead 23-14 at the half.

In the 4th quarter, Michigan State scored again on a 15-yard pass from Cousins to Martin, and added a two-point conversion to go up 14.  Wisconsin wouldn’t stay down long, scoring 2 unanswered touchdowns to tie the game and set up the game’s final play.

With 4 seconds left, Cousins launched a prayer of a pass that bounced off the facemask of star receiver Cunningham, only to land in the arms of Nichol for a touchdown and the win.

Following that game, both teams had moments where they played uneven football.  Wisconsin’s only other conference loss came the very next week against Ohio State in Columbus.  That game featured another late breakdown by the Badgers, as they allowed a game-winning 40-yard touchdown pass with just 20 seconds left.  Wisconsin was never threatened again, though; they won their final four Big Ten games by a total score of 177-54 (including a 45-7 drubbing of Penn State last week in which a spot in the conference championship was on the line) on their way to winning the Leaders division.

Michigan State also stumbled the week after the thriller against Wisconsin in East Lansing, falling at Nebraska 24-3 in their worst offensive showing of the season.  The Spartans gained just 187 yards of total offense in Lincoln, but rebounded with 4 consecutive wins of their own to clinch the Legends division.

What Wisconsin must do to win

Running back Montee Ball, who some have argued should have a shot at the Heisman (I agree), had his worst two rushing yardage totals in conference play against Michigan State (18 carries, 115 yards) and Ohio State (17 carries, 85 yards).

Clearly, as Ball goes, the Badgers go.

If they want to avoid a repeat of the East Lansing game, they will get Ball involved and force the Spartans to stop him.  He ran effectively in the first game, but 18 carries is not enough.  If Ball gets 25-30 touches and the massive Wisconsin offensive line can hold the Spartan front at bay, the Badgers will control the clock and win the game.

Wisconsin’s defense hasn’t struggled against anyone like they did against Cousins and the Spartans.  Cousins was having a good game even before the last-second scoring pass, but Wisconsin seems to have righted the ship in their last 4 games.  Granted, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Penn State don’t offer nearly the same caliber of offense as Michigan State, but it seems that Wisconsin has toughened up.  Holding Cunningham in check will be key, and they must also watch for KeShawn Martin on reverses and trick plays.  He is an elusive ball carrier who can turn a single missed tackle into a touchdown.

Wisconsin does a great job protecting the ball, and they will need to do that again this week.  Wilson threw 2 interceptions in the last Wisconsin-Michigan State game, which is uncharacteristic of him.  It is vital for Wisconsin to not give Michigan State any easy opportunities.  This includes special teams, where they allowed Michigan State to score a touchdown off a blocked punt and also allowed a blocked field goal.  Wilson’s safety via intentional grounding also occurred because of a Michigan State punt that started the Badgers at their own 5-yard line.

What Michigan State must do to win

The Spartans' defense will be tested Saturday night.

Despite getting the win on a Hail Mary that defied all odds, a lot of things went right for Michigan State last time against Wisconsin.  They forced two Wilson turnovers, had several key special teams plays, and were able to throw the ball with great success.  They will need more of the same to hope to win the Big Ten and get to Pasadena.

For Michigan State, everything starts on defense.  They are 11th in the FBS against the run, but perhaps no running back can abuse a defense like Montee Ball.  In the first meeting, they allowed Ball to go for 115 yards; if they allow him 6.4 yards per carry like this time like they did then, they will have trouble.  I expect Ball to receive a healthier workload this time around, so it’s up to defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and end William Gholston (who was suspended for the first Wisconsin game) to limit his effectiveness.

Of course, stacking the line to stop the run may allow Wilson to get loose, which is just as dangerous.  Last time, the second of Wilson’s two interceptions allowed Michigan State to hold off a scoring drive that might have iced the game for Wisconsin.  The Spartans must force a turnover or two in order to win this game.

B.J. Cunningham (67 catches, 1125 yards, 9 TD) is the clear star of the receiving corps, but it is KeShawn Martin who intrigues me most.  I would like to see Michigan State get him the ball in a variety of ways, including bubble screens, reverses and end-arounds.  He can big play ability, and they will need a few big plays to beat the Badgers.

Big Ten Championship Game Prediction

I think almost everything that could have gone right for Michigan State in the final three quarters of the first matchup, did go right.  Even though they enter as the team with only one Big Ten loss to Wisconsin’s two, I see the Badgers winning this game.

The combination of Montee Ball’s brilliance and Russell Wilson’s efficiency will be too much, and I think that Michigan State will have much more trouble passing the ball this time.

Final Score: Wisconsin 38 | Michigan State 24

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Who do you think will punch their ticket to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl?

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Big Ten Championship Game Info
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Date: Saturday, December 3rd
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Kickoff Time: 8:17 PM EST
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Location: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State TV: FOX
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Point Spread: Wisconsin -10
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Over/Under: 54.5

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Follow me on Twitter @keithmullett

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