Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 12/2/11

The Big Ten Championship Game Saturday (Fox, 7:17 CST) between the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 6-2) and the No. 13 Michigan State Spartans (10-2, 7-1) will be a rematch of one of the greatest games from the 2011 season. Back on October 22, Michigan State ended the game– in which both teams held two-touchdown leads at one point– as time expired on a Hail Mary pass, securing a 37-31 victory and ensuring the replay would haunt Badger fans forever.

Had you finally forgotten this image, Badger fans? Wide receiver Keith Nichols comes down with the batted ball and just crosses the goal line to win the first game this season between the Badgers and Spartans. Wisconsin players and fans, alike, will use this moment as motivation this Saturday.

Each team lost its game the weekend following the dramatics in East Lansing (MSU lost at Nebraska, 24-3; UW lost at Ohio State 33-29), maybe showing just how much effort and energy was put in to the hard-fought battle. With much more at stake Saturday– a victory in the first ever Big Ten title game and a trip to the Rose Bowl– each team will have to control its emotions and put together its best collective effort to prevail in what  has become one of the conference’s most heated rivalries.

Here’s a look at the most important matchups for the game:

Montee Ball vs. Spartans Run Defense

Really, this is the Wisconsin offensive line vs. the Michigan State run defense, but Montee Ball needs some more publicity to finally get into the Heisman conversation, which he fully deserves.

That aside, Michigan State’s run defense ranks eleventh in the country, allowing just 102.5 yards a game, and having surrendered just eight rushing touchdowns all season. Contrast that with Ball’s rushing averages of 135 yards and three touchdowns a game, and this becomes the matchup with the largest impact on the game. Earlier in the season, Ball rushed for 115 yards and a score and caught two passes for 24 yards and a touchdown against the Spartans, even with missing much of the second quarter with a head injury. I think Wisconsin will look to give Ball even more touches in this game, and try to control the clock after losing the time of possession battle the first time around (31:31-28:29).

The health of center Peter Konz will impact the success of the Wisconsin rushing attack, and he traveled to Indianapolis but will likely be a gametime decision.

Kirk Cousins vs. Badgers Secondary

Cousins had a huge game the last time around, throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns. He was probably the biggest reason the Spartans came back from their early deficit and won that game, and he hasn’t slowed down too much since. He has thrown for at least 214 yards and two touchdowns in the last four games, all of which Michigan State won.

Cousins will be looking for his go-to receiver, B.J. Cunningham, to step up once again. Cunningham caught six passes for 102 yards and a score last time against the Wisconsin secondary, and has gone over 100 yards and caught two touchdown passes in three of his last four games.

Borland (#44) and Taylor (#53) will have a big impact on the game Saturday. They're usually stout against the run, and will have to assist in pass defense for the Badgers to avoid a repeat of Cousins' performance against them earlier in the season.

He repeatedly caught balls over the middle of the field and ran with them after the catch against the injury-laden Badgers secondary. But since that game, the Wisconsin pass defense has improved greatly. The Badgers allow just 144.5 passing yards a game, good for third in the nation. More importantly, they’ve picked off opposing quarterbacks 14 times to go along with eight forced fumbles. This Wisconsin defense is most successful when it is forcing turnovers, but that will be a tough task against Cousins, who has thrown just six interceptions on the season, and only two in his last seven games.

Part of the secondary’s success will depend on the Badgers defensive line getting pressure on Cousins. In the last game, they sacked Cousins four times and he still ripped them apart. What’s interesting is that in the last four games, Wisconsin has just two sacks, but has forced seven interceptions and kept the opposing passer under 165 yards each time. So maybe the best recipe for success against Cousins isn’t blitzing and trying to get pressure, but sitting back in a zone or keeping a linebacker in to protect against those short crossing patterns. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor each have two interceptions on the season and I would look for one of them to stay in the middle of the field and spy the quarterback to try to come up with an interception.

Bret Bielema vs. Bret Bielema

Many people blamed Bielema for the way the game against Michigan State ended. He called timeouts during a tie game on the Spartans’ final drive, attempting to get his offense one more shot before the game would go to overtime. His strategy backfired and his team’s perfect season was ruined. But the way he got his players to turn their season around after two consecutive heartbreaking losses, to be in position to win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl, is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s a great quality in a coach to be strong and consistent while seemingly everything around his team is crumbling to the ground, and I think the Wisconsin players respect and admire Bielema for all of his decisions, whether they turned out well or not. Bielema has a lot of upperclassmen he relies on to lead his team on the field, and I think he will be best served to depend on them once again and let his top-5 ranked offense and defense do what they do.

He doesn’t need to get cute by calling for fake punts or going for it on fourth down in risky field position situations, and I think he has realized that for awhile and just flat out made a mistake in the earlier Michigan State game. Bielema will depend on his talented, experienced team and let it decide on the field whether or not it deserves a spot in the Rose Bowl.

Prediction

I haven’t picked against Wisconsin yet this year, and I truly believed they would win each game. I think Michigan State is clearly the best team in the Legends division and presents an enormous challenge to the Badgers. Kirk Cousins shredded this defense once before and he could do it again. But I think the Wisconsin defense has vastly improved since that beatdown, and will be more prepared this time around to handle Cousins and the Spartan passing game. The Badger offense has been unstoppable all season, and I see no reason why it would slow down for the biggest game of the year. I think they will let Montee Ball be the workhorse and carry the most talented team in the Big Ten to the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin wins: 31-21.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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