Big Ten Championship Game: A Deserving Sequel
All sequels are not created equal.
For every The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back or Aliens, there are a hundred forgotten follow-ups. Anyone care to remember dreck like Mannequin 2: On the Move, Hardbodies 2, or Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles?
Many times failed sequels are spawned from original films that weren’t that memorable the first time around, causing some to wonder, “Who asked for more of this?”
Not so with Saturday’s Wisconsin/Michigan State second go-round.
Ever since Michigan State pulled off the win over the Badgers on October 22 with a last-second Hail Mary pass, Wisconsin and their fans have been eager for another crack at Sparty.
After all, not only did the Kirk Cousins-to Keith Nichol heave cost Wisconsin the game, it cost the Badgers a chance at an undefeated season and a possible shot at the BCS National Championship Game, two goals that, especially after back-to-back whippings of Nebraska and Indiana, seemed at the time to be very much in reach.
So on Saturday, thanks to the conference’s realignment, Wisconsin gets the rare chance to avenge a same-season loss by beating the Spartans in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.
The team and their fans are thrilled to have the opportunity.
But should they be?
After all, it’s not as if Wisconsin has had tremendous success against Michigan State in recent seasons. Since taking over as head coach, Bret Bielema is just 2-3 against Mark Dantonio’s Spartans. Only Bielema’s record against Ohio State (1-4) is worse (note that the Buckeyes and Spartans account for no fewer than seven of Bielema’s 18 career losses).
More to the point, October’s loss was hardly all about that final play. Michigan State’s defense owned Wisconsin for much of the first half, and it was a near-miraculous comeback engineered by Russell Wilson that brought the Badgers back from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to tie that game at 31-31 with about a minute and a half to play.
In short, exacting revenge on the Spartans will not be easy for Bucky.
But can they do it? Here are some things to consider before answering that question.
1. Head Games: Regardless of which team has the better athletes or which team is better coached, there can be no doubt that Michigan State has the mental edge in this game. Mark Dantonio will undoubtedly stress to his players that for much of their first meeting, his team was solidly in control and there’s no reason they can’t do it again.
2. Man At The Top: Russell Wilson, who leads the entire country with a quarterback rating of 192.9, has been outplayed at the position in a game exactly once this year. Guess which game. In October, Cousins rocked the Badger secondary for 290 yards and three touchdowns, while Wilson threw for two touchdowns and rushed for one but also threw two costly picks. If Cousins, who’s had a very nice year (21 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes) can outplay Wilson again, the Spartans can win again.
3.Punch-Drunk Love: You can’t credit Spartans defensive end William Gholston with keeping the Badgers’ offense in relative check during their first meeting in October: He was suspended during that game for throwing a punch in the previous week’s game against Michigan. Gholston, who has 59 tackles on the year, including 11 tackles for loss, could be a difference-maker Saturday, especially if he can slow down Montee Ball.
4. Ballroom Dancing: But even a slowed-down Montee Ball is still crazy good. Case in point: Ball (18 rushes) and James White (11 rushes) split carries an inordinate amount last time these teams met due to Ball taking himself out of the game for a time with a mild injury. But even with those limited carries, Ball still had 139 total yards and two trips to the end zone. Assuming Ball plays the entire game Saturday, he will give the Spartans loads of trouble.
5. Not-So-Special Teams: In October, the Spartans blocked a short field goal attempt and later scored a touchdown when they fell on a blocked punt in the end zone. The Badgers’ special teams and kick coverage units have been underwhelming all season, but never were their mistakes as costly as during the Spartans loss. They’ll be better than that Saturday night.
6. Eastbound And Third Down: The Spartans were 8-for-16 on third-down conversions last time. The Badgers defense will have to force a worse percentage than that to win Saturday.
7. Happy Days For Cunningham: Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham has had his way with most secondaries this year, and his treatment of Wisconsin’s was no different – he torched the Badgers for 102 yards on just 6 catches. At nearly 17 yards a catch, Cunningham is the Spartans’ big-play receiver. The Badgers backfield will have to keep Cunningham in front of them.
8. Under Pressure: ESPN Stats points out that Kirk Cousins was a perfect 9-for-9 when facing three or fewer pass rushes in the teams’ earlier meeting. Look for Wisconsin to send more pressure Cousins’s way.
9. Please, No Wagering: Despite the recent history of these two teams, despite the rankings, and despite the most recent outcome the last time these two teams played –all of which favor Michigan State – the Badgers are favored by 9.5 points. As if the Spartans needed more motivation.
10. And In The End . . . Looking back to their last meeting, it’s hard to imagine Russell Wilson makes as many mistakes as he did then. It’s hard to imagine Kirk Cousins plays as well as he did then. It’s hard to imagine that the Spartans can block two of the Badgers’ kicks again. Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine Montee Ball having a better game. It’s easy to imagine the Badgers’ defense playing more aggressively and not allowing Cousins to get into a rhythm. But it’s also not hard to argue that Dantonio just has Bielema’s number. I expect another close game, but this time one that favors Wisconsin.
Final prediction: Wisconsin 24, Michigan State 21.
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