Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long, storied history. Today, we're going all the way back to... the most recent Big Ten conference game played: The 2011 Big Ten Championship Game.
Date: December 3, 2011
Place: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
Teams: Michigan State vs. Wisconsin
Final Score: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39
Coming into this game, people weren't entirely sure what to expect, or what the entire experience would be like. The Big Ten had never had an official football championship game, and if the first was a flop between two teams that had already played each other, how much would people want to keep going to the title games? Furthermore, Michigan State's Hail Mary win over Wisconsin in October was an instant classic; how could the rematch live up to that standard?
As it turns out, there was nothing to worry about, because the Championship Game was an absolute, unquestionable classic. For the second time in the season, Wisconsin jumped out to an early 14-point lead in the first quarter (and looked invincible in the process), only to see the Spartans storm back and take the lead before the half was over. Here, a 21-7 Wisconsin lead after one quarter rapidly deteriorated into a 29-21 Spartan advantage at halftime, with MSU bottling up Montee Ball after a sensational first quarter. Michigan State even successfully ran a fake PAT to take the lead at 22-21, sending a message to Wisconsin that every point would be crucial.
Michigan State would not relinquish the lead in the third quarter, but it became evident that Wisconsin was determined to make it a 60-minute game, and that it would be. Russell Wilson began to assert himself as the leader of the Wisconsin offense (something he couldn't do without Ball in the game against Michigan State the first time the teams met), and he led the team on three touchdown drives in the second half; all in all, Wilson threw for 155 of his 187 passing yards in the second half.
Still, Michigan State had managed to outpace Wisconsin throughout the entire second half, and a missed two-point conversion after a Wisconsin touchdown early in the fourth quarter had preserved a two-point Spartan lead. Michigan State responded with a long drive and found itself with a 1st and 10 at Wisconsin's 13-yard line. A touchdown would give the Spartans a safe, two-possession lead with under 10 minutes to go. Instead, Wisconsin's defense finally held fast, and MSU was forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal on 4th and 5--a decision that, in retrospect, Mark Dantonio might have wished he had back.
What ensued was an absolutely insane stretch of five minutes to close out the game, featuring (deep breath) Russell Wilson's desperation 36-yard heave to Jeff Duckworth, Wisconsin taking the lead for the first time in the second half with under four minutes to play, Michigan State punting after a leaping, tiptoe Keshawn Martin catch at the sideline was deemed no good by replay, Michigan State's decision to punt working by forcing Wisconsin into a three-and-out, and Martin's subsequent punt return to inside the 5-yard line waved off due to a Spartan running into punter Brad Nordmann, sealing the win for Wisconsin.
The end of the game was a disappointment, as all clinching plays that are affected by flags are, but all in all the championship game was the best Big Ten game of the entire 2011 season. The game was a one-possession affair for the last 45 minutes, which is a hard thing to accomplish when 81 points go up on the scoreboard, it was largely mistake-free, and it featured two teams leaving it all out on the field for a coveted Rose Bowl berth. Future Big Ten Championships have a high, high bar to clear for quality.