Big Ten Championship Game: 5 Keys for a Wisconsin Victory
On October 22nd of this year, the Wisconsin Badgers suffered a very painful 37-31 loss to the Michigan State Spartans on a Hail Mary pass. There were actually a number of other reasons why Badgers lost that Saturday night in Lansing, Michigan.
Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. Well, it won't even be that cold in Indianapolis, Indiana...where the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game will be played. The temperature is expected to be in the 50s on Saturday. Besides, the game will be played in the indoor Lucas Oil Stadium. The same site that will host Super Bowl XLVI in February.
The indoor environment favors the more talented squad. That bodes well for the Badgers. Revenge might not be served cold on Saturday night, but it will be served with authority if Wisconsin can do what they do best and also make sure they correct the mistakes they made in the last game against the Spartans.
Let us take a look at the keys of the game for the Badgers...
Do What You Do Best
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Just look at these stats and you will see what the Wisconsin Badgers do best...
QB Russell Wilson has thrown 28 touchdown passes to just three interceptions for 2,692 yards. Wilson has also completed 72.7 percent of his passes. In addition to that, Wilson has run for 325 yards (a 4.9 rushing average) and has five rushing touchdowns. Wilson has also caught a touchdown pass.
Then you have running back Montee Ball. Ball has rushed for 1,622 yards (a 6.5-yard average) and has 29 rushing touchdowns. Ball also has 17 receptions for 248 yards and has five touchdown catches. It was also Ball that threw Wilson a 25-yard touchdown pass.
Both Wilson and Ball have Heisman-type numbers, although neither will win that coveted award most likely. Wilson did win the Griese-Brees Big Ten Quarterback of the Year award, while Ball was named Graham-George Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year as well as the Dayne-Ameche Running Back of the Year. Both were obviously first-team All-Big Ten selections as well.
Ball is also a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. Ball and Wilson, along with Kirk Cousins of Michigan State, are the finalists for the Silver Football Award, which the coaches award to the best player in the Big Ten.
Bottom line, if both come close to playing on Saturday night like they have played so far in 2011, the Badgers have an excellent shot at winning. When the Badgers played Michigan State in October, Wilson and Ball played okay, but their play certainly wasn't the best performance of the season for either of them.
Wilson was 14-of-21 for 223 yards with two touchdown passes compared to a season-high two interceptions in the game. Wilson also ran for 30 yards and had a rushing touchdown. Ball ran for 115 yards and one touchdown, plus had another via pass reception.
Really Be Special
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The Wisconsin Badgers lost to the Michigan State Spartans 37-31 in October in Lansing. The team suffered the loss because of a long Hail Mary pass at the end of the game. But the game was really lost due to special teams errors.
One being a short field goal that was blocked, while the other was a blocked punt that was turned into a touchdown for the Spartans. That's a 10-point swing, folks. And that is the main reason Wisconsin lost that night.
The Badgers got off to a 14-0 lead in the game and then things started to unravel in the second quarter, as the Spartans scored 23 points in that quarter while holding the Badgers scorelss. It all started to go south for the Badgers with the blocked field goal. The blocked punt for a touchdown occurred with just 36 seconds left in the first half.
The Badgers have to be much better on special teams on Saturday night. Wisconsin is second to last in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage and has had two punts blocked for touchdowns this season, including the one against the Spartans. The Spartans lead the Big Ten with two punt returns for touchdowns this season.
In 2010, the Spartans returned a punt for a touchdown against the Badgers and that play turned out to be the turning point of the game in the Michigan State win.
The Badgers have a viable threat returning punts too, as Jared Abbrederis has a very impressive 16.4 return average, which includes a touchdown.
Stop the Spartans and Kirk Cousins on Third Down
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The Michigan State Spartans, behind QB Kurt Cousins, converted 50 percent of their third-down chances (eight of 16) in the 37-31 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers on Oct. 22. That percentage is way too high, and if the Badgers expect to win the Big Ten championship game on Saturday night, the defense needs to stop the Spartans on third down and get off the field.
Cousins is the key. Cousins completed 10 of 14 passes for 128 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the October meeting on third down. Eight of those completions resulted in first downs.
Cousins had an exceptional night in October overall. Cousins was 23-of-31 for 290 yards and had three touchdown passes compared to zero interceptions. The Badgers have to have more pass pressure on Cousins overall, and especially on third down.
The Badgers did get four sacks against Cousins and the Spartans in October, but none occurred at a key point of the game. The Badgers also need to anticipate better in the defensive backfield and try to force an interception or two by Cousins. A better pass rush would help that cause.
The Badgers Need Balance in All Three Phases of the Game
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It's an old adage, but to win most football games, teams have to be good in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams. The units need to have balance too, if they want to achieve the ultimate success, which is a victory of course.
Wisconsin has one of the most powerful offenses in the country. The Badgers average 477 yards per game (12th) and 44.8 points per game (fourth). The offense has scored over 42 points in eight of 12 games this season and has not scored fewer than 28 points in a game. Why? Great balance in the passing and rushing game.
Montee Ball and James White provide solid production on the ground, while Russell Wilson looks to three key receivers in the passing game. They would be wide receiver Nick Toon (52 receptions for 788 yards and nine touchdowns), wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (48 receptions for 749 yards and six touchdowns) and tight end Jacob Pederson (28 receptions for 326 yards and eight touchdowns).
The Badger defense isn't bad either. Wisconsin ranks seventh nationally in total defense (278 yards per game) and fifth in points per game allowed (15.2). The Badgers also rank third nationally against the pass.
The Badgers need to get some turnovers against the Spartans. The defense did force a fumble, which led to a touchdown for the Wisconsin, but did not get an interception that game, as Kirk Cousins had a big night throwing the ball.
Key players to watch on the Wisconsin defense include linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, along with safety Aaron Henry.
The Badgers need to be on their game in all phases of special teams against the Spartans. That means being solid in kick coverage, kick returning, punting and place kicking. Why? Because if a team has breakdowns in any of those areas, it can cost them a win. The Badgers know that all too well, as it was a blocked field goal and a blocked punt which led to their loss against the Spartans in October.
Bret Bielema Needs to Outcoach Mark Dantonio
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Head coach Bret Bielema has a 59-18 record as the leader of the Wisconsin Badgers since he took over in 2006. That's pretty good. Bielema has also taken the Badgers to five straight Bowl appearances in that time. The Badgers are only 2-3 in those games. That's not so good.
Bielema and head coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans have met four times, and both coaches have won twice. In 2010, Dantonio was actually not able to coach against the Bielema and the Badgers as he was recovering from a heart attack. Michigan State won that game, even without Dantonio.
It seems like every time these two teams play, the game is very close. Just look at the recent history...
2007: Wisconsin 37, Michigan State 34
2008: Michigan State 25, Wisconsin 24
2009: Wisconsin 38, Michigan State 30
2010: Michigan State 34, Wisconsin 24
2011: Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31
Bottom line, Bielema has been a productive winner as head coach of the Badgers. The Badgers were co-champions of the Big Ten last year, along with Michigan State and Ohio State. That led to Wisconsin's first Rose Bowl in over a decade.
But Wisconsin suffered a tough 21-19 loss to TCU in that game in Pasadena. Right now, Bielema's best signature win in a "big" game was the 17-14 win against Arkansas at the Capitol One Bowl in Bielema's first season.
Winning the game against Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game will be another signature win. Then, Bielema and his Badgers would get another shot in the Rose Bowl, this time against Oregon.