Big 10 Conference Championship: 10 Keys to Michigan State vs. Wisconsin
Ten key factors will determine whether the Wisconsin Badgers or Michigan State Spartans represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
On Oct. 22, Michigan State defeated Wisconsin on a last-second Hail Mary that sent the Badgers' BCS title dreams crashing down.
Wisconsin has not forgotten about the Hail Mary to this day, but itches at the opportunity to salvage that dreadful October night in East Lansing.
The two programs have formed an exciting rivalry that many hope will write another chapter on Saturday evening in the Big Ten's first conference championship game.
Here are 10 keys to the Big Ten's inaugural championship game...
Peter Konz Status'
Peter Konz is popularly thought of as one of the best interior linemen in the country. Just two weeks ago, Konz suffered a dislocated ankle, and his status for the rest of the season was unknown.
In a stunning change of events, Konz's walking boot was removed on Sunday, and he went through individual drills on Tuesday.
Konz may be a long shot to play, but his leadership is highly thought of along the Badgers offensive line. If his ankle is good enough to play sparingly, it will be interesting to see the type of impact he makes.
William Gholston's Presence
At 6'7" 280 pounds, William Gholston is one of the most physically superior players at his position in the country.
Due to an incident in Michigan State's win over Michigan, Gholston was held out of the Spartans win over the Badgers.
Gholston was recently named to All-Big Ten second team (coaches and media) and is 12th in the conference in TFL.
The Wisconsin rushing attack went for 220 yards (5.4 YPC) in the first meeting between the two programs. With Gholston back for round two, his impact will be felt along the defensive front.
Paul Chryst vs. Pat Nadruzzi
Paul Chryst is the offensive coordinator for Wisconsin and Pat Nadruzzi is the defensive coordinator for Michigan State.
Both are highly respected and very talented coordinators. Ironically enough, both are rumored to be candidates for the newly-opened Illinois job.
Chryst is a patient offensive coordinator that aims to have his offense control the clock.
Running opposite of Chryst, Nadruzzi is an aggressive defensive mind that likes to blitz.
It will be interesting to see how the two jock back and forth. Wisconsin ranks 12th nationally in total offense and fourth in scoring offense (44.8). Meanwhile, Michigan State ranks third nationally in total defense and sixth in scoring defense (15.4).
Third Down Importance
Wisconsin defending against the Michigan State offense on third downs might be the most important aspect of this game.
Over the past two seasons, Wisconsin is 0-2 against Michigan State and a big reason why are the Spartans ability to convert on third down.
In 2010, Michigan State converted 9-of-18 third downs against Wisconsin. In their only meeting this season, the Spartans converted 8-of-16.
Wisconsin cannot expect to get or sustain a lead if they continually allow Michigan State to convert on third downs.
There are two instances this season where I noticed that the Wisconsin offense goes as Montee Ball goes.
The first was against Michigan State on Oct. 22 against Michigan State. For the remaining 11 minutes of the first half, Ball was out of the game due to an injury, and the Wisconsin offense was only able to muster six total yards in that span.
The second instance was Wisconsin's come-from-behind victory over Illinois. Going into the half, the Badgers were behind 17-7. In the second half, Montee Ball exploded for 160-plus yards and the Badgers scored 21 unanswered points.
Russell Wilson is an obvious importance to Wisconsin's attack, but Ball is simply a game-changer that needs to get going for Wisconsin's offense to go.
Antonio Fenelus vs. B.J. Cunningham
In the first matchup between Michigan State and Wisconsin, B.J. Cunningham used his size to break tackles and bully the Wisconsin secondary en route to a 102-yard receiving day. Perhaps most notable was his third down catch that he took 35 yards for a touchdown.
Antonio Fenelus is a talented defensive back and both players garnered all-conference honors. Fenelus held A.J. Jenkins to just 33 receiving yards and Derek Moye to 22.
Cunningham lines up all over the Michigan State formation, but expect an awesome battle when these two get matched up on one another.
Michigan Punt Team vs. Jared Abbrederis
Jared Abbrederis has been a pleasant surprise for the Wisconsin Badgers. The sophomore walk-on has enjoyed a breakout season and earned all-conference honors. On top of that, Abbrederis currently leads the country in yards per punt return (16.35).
On the other end, Michigan State is 83rd in yards allowed per punt return (9.82).
Michigan State doesn't allow returners their chance all too often, but it is wise to be weary when the nation's top returner is back there.
Wisconsin's Special Teams
How can we not include this as a key to the game?
Michigan State blocked a Wisconsin punt for a touchdown and blocked a field goal that led to a touchdown in the Oct. 22 matchup.
For Wisconsin, it was deja vu a week later as the Badgers had another punt blocked in similar fashion.
All facets of special teams for the Badgers, with the exception of punt return, has been shaky at best this season. They cannot expect to earn a Rose Bowl bid with poor special teams play on Saturday evening.
The senior quarterback has been on fire since Michigan State fell to Nebraska by 21 in Lincoln. Over his four games, Kirk Cousins has thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception and is a big reason why Michigan State is riding a four-game winning streak.
The Spartans will need big plays from their leader on Saturday evening.
Cousins is no stranger to big games against Wisconsin. In 2010, he threw for 269 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-24 Michigan State victory. In 2011, he tossed three touchdown passes and threw for 290 yards in a last-second victory over the Badgers.
Michigan State has a solid ground game, but will certainly ride the arm of Kirk Cousins on offense.
Though I stated Montee Ball's importance earlier, there is no denying how important of a piece Russell Wilson is to Wisconsin as well. The fifth-year senior is on pace to absolutely shred the passer efficiency rating, currently held by Colt Brennan.
Wilson had three costly plays in the first meeting, but I don't expect those same mistakes to be duplicated. One interception was in part to miscommunication between Nick Toon and Wilson. The other was an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone that led to a safety. That is one play I expect Wilson not to make again.
In any case, Russell Wilson's ability to extend plays with his legs will be key for a Wisconsin team that is without their starting offensive lineman.