Six short weeks ago, Michigan State ended Wisconsin’s unbeaten dreams, with a last-play Hail Mary that shocked the Badgers, 37-31.
Saturday night, the two sides are meeting again, with the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth on the line.
The No. 13 Spartans and No. 15 Badgers both came to Indianapolis with 10-2 records and riding four-game winning streaks. Both have superb senior quarterbacks in Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson and Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins. Both also have capable defenses, allowing just 15 points a game.
After two entertaining, yet hard-fought quarters, here are four things Wisconsin must do to stay in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State.
1. Win the Battle on the Offensive Line of Scrimmage
Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball is a beast.
He ran for 115 yards and one touchdown against the Spartans in October, and the country’s leading touchdown-maker has already had a huge first half for the Badgers.
To keep the Ball rolling, Wisconsin’s O-line needs to continue to dominate the Sparties’ front seven.
If they keep opening up huge holes in Michigan State’s 11th-ranked rush defense, they’ll successfully rule the possession game, and should continue to move the ball with ease and put points on the board all night long.
2. Give Their Quarterback Time
The more Ball can continue to rack up yards on the ground, the easier he’ll make life for quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson has been stellar since the Badgers’ loss to the Spartans on Oct. 22, not throwing a single interception since that game, and leading the nation with a 192.9 passer rating.
Wilson has been very solid and efficient to this point, and it’s been pretty easy.
With the line pushing State off the ball and Ball dominating in the running game, Wilson hasn’t seen too much pressure and hasn’t had to make many tough plays.
If Wilson can continue to sit back and pick apart the Sparty defense, it’s going to be a long night for the team in green.
3. Stop the Michigan State Running Game
Michigan State’s quarterback is excellent.
Their running-back duo of Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker is ranked 12th in the Big Ten.
Which would you think the Badgers would have a tougher time stopping?
But you'd be surprised.
Bell and Baker have played well so far, racking up a combined 110 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
To put a stop to the Spartans’ well-balanced offensive attack, Wisconsin must start with State’s running game, and that means they’ll have to do a better job of beating the O-line off the snap, “getting stouter at the point of attack” (as the FOX color man suggested) and plugging the holes.
4. Put Pressure on Kirk Cousins
After a quiet start, the Michigan State quarterback absolutely picked apart the Wisconsin secondary in the second quarter with gutsy trick plays, a ball-control offense and pinpoint passing.
Cousins is an experienced signal-caller and a great game manager, and for the Badgers to have a shot at stopping the Spartans’ offense—a la Shelton Johnson picking off Cousins—they’ll need to get pressure on the senior and force him into similarly bad throws.
5. Continue to Avoid Mistakes
The Badgers have struggled all season on kick- and punt-return coverage, giving their opponents valuable yardage via the return game.
What happened on Michigan State’s first return of the game? Nick Hill got great blocking, broke a tackle and returned the kick 39 yards to the Sparties’ 41. They went on to score a touchdown.
Hill fumbled his next kick return and it was recovered by Wisconsin. Two plays later, the Badgers turned it into a touchdown of their own.
In a game where the two teams are rather even and it appears it could turn into a shootout, one game-changer on special teams could end up making a huge difference.
To win this game and earn a spot in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin must avoid coverage breakdowns on returns and keep from turning the ball over.
Getting extra yardage and additional possessions are the best chances Michigan State will have to stick with the prolific Wisconsin offense.