I first arrived at Michigan State University in the fall of 1994 to work there in the sports information department. At the Harrison Roadhouse, one of the top spots to eat in East Lansing, I remember vividly that there was a green and white banner on the far wall that commemorated MSU's 1987 Rose Bowl title.
That banner has been waiting for some company ever since, as the Spartans have yet to go back to Pasadena. There's a chance it could get a new neighbor, though, after Saturday's inaugural Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, when the 10-2 Spartans meet the 10-2 Wisconsin Badgers. The winner will earn the conference's coveted Rose Bowl bid.
Both teams finished first in their respective Big Ten divisions this season, with No. 11 MSU topping the Legends Division, and No. 15 Wisconsin claiming the Leaders bracket. It was the first time the venerable association had split into divisions, with the Spartans and Badgers outdistancing the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State.
Saturday's game will be a rematch of State's last-second 37-31 victory at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 22, when WR Keith Nichol corralled a 44-yard pass from QB Kirk Cousins on the final play and just managed to break the plane of the goal line to give MSU its second straight win over Wisco. The Spartans, coached by Mark Dantonio, finished 7-1 in Big Ten play, while the Badgers, guided by Bret Bielema, were 6-2 in the conference.
Cousins has completed 218 of 339 passes for 2,735 yards, 21 TDs and six interceptions, and carries a QB rating of 149.0. Spartans WR B.J. Cunningham has hauled in 67 passes for 1,125 yards and nine scores, while RB Le'Veon Bell has rushed 147 times for a team-high 794 yards and 10 TDs. On defense, DBs Isaiah Lewis and Trenton Robinson each have four interceptions, with Lewis running back half of his picks for six points apiece, while LB Max Bullough has a team-high 80 tackles.
Wisconsin's Russell Wilson has a 192.9 QB rating on the strength of 189-of-260 passing for 2,692 yards and 28 TDs against just three interceptions. Badgers RB Montee Ball has rushed 248 times for 1,622 yards and a whopping 29 TDs, while WR Nick Toon has caught 52 passes for 788 yards and nine scores. DB Antonio Fenelus has a team-high four interceptions on defense, while LB Mike Taylor leads both the Badgers and the Big Ten with 128 tackles.
Wisconsin is first in the Big Ten in both scoring offense and defense, while MSU ranks fourth and second, respectively. Wisco is also first in the conference in total offense and rushing defense, while State is tops in total defense and rushing defense. Wisconsin also leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency, while MSU is second in passing offense, so it will likely all come down to the battle of the Badger scorers against the Spartan defenders.
The Badgers, who last season earned a Rose Bowl bid over Michigan State due to a higher BCS ranking, despite the two teams tying for the conference crown with Ohio State, are nearly a 10-point favorite for Saturday night in Indiana.
We'll see what happens—and if that banner at the Roadhouse might get some company in the months to come.