2011 Big Ten Football Championship

Big Ten football fans

Big Ten Championship Game Preview: Michigan State vs. Wisconsin


The Michigan State Spartans and the Wisconsin Badgers both own 10-2 records. They both own the first division championships in the history of the Big Ten Conference. They both own reputations for playing better at home than on the road.

The more you analyze the matchup in the first Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the harder it is to imagine a blowout in one direction or another. This clash between Sparty and Bucky, between Team Green and Team Red, seems destined for a photo finish. If the conclusion to Saturday night’s game is anything close to the climax of these teams’ regular-season meeting, State-Wisconsin Part Two will leave a sizeable imprint on the mind’s eye and thrill college football fans from coast to coast.

You remember the late-October meeting between Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Badgers rolled into East Lansing with an unbeaten record, but they hadn’t yet played a road game in 2011, a hard feat to pull off in a 12-game season. In the early stages, it appeared that Wisconsin would run away with the victory; coach Bret Bielema’s boys raced to a 14-0 lead and put the Spartans on their heels. However, Wisconsin’s full persona soon came into view, and Michigan State was ready to pounce.

Wisconsin has shown a different mindset away from Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The Badgers just don’t display the same confidence on the road; they don’t summon forth the same ruthlessness they manage to exhibit in their own ballpark. Shortly after gaining that 14-0 lead, the Badgers conceded a safety and, a little later, a blocked punt for a touchdown. State established freight train-level momentum and scored 31 of the game’s next 34 points to take a 31-17 lead in the early stages of the fourth quarter.

Yes, Wisconsin scrambled to tie the game thanks to the offensive dynamism of running back Montee Ball (a Heisman Trophy candidate) and quarterback Russell Wilson, but Michigan State had the last laugh. After Bielema called a timeout before a 3rd-and-8 play to give MSU extra time, the Spartans moved to the Wisconsin 44 with enough time for a last-ditch Hail Mary. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins lofted a high throw to the one-yard line, where receiver Keith Nichol caught the ball and pushed toward the goal line against a Wisconsin defender. The official who was standing on the goal line ruled that Nichol was stopped short, but replay clearly showed that Nichol pushed the ball over the plane of the goal line. Michigan State scored a last-play touchdown to stun Wisconsin, 37-31, and gain the inside track to the Big Ten Legends Division title. Wisconsin might have scrambled to win the Leaders Division on the final day of the regular season against Penn State, but the Badgers are surely haunted by their loss to Sparty on Oct. 22.

The key to this game is simple: Will Russell Wilson play this neutral-site game with complete confidence and precision? Wilson has been mediocre on the road and brilliant at home. He’s not playing this game in Camp Randall, but it’s certainly not going to be a Michigan State home game, either. The extent to which Wilson settles into the flow of action (and the extent to which Michigan State’s front seven can disrupt him) will tell you all you need to know about the final outcome. Can Wisconsin gain revenge? Can Michigan State replicate its breakthrough win against the Badgers? We’ll find out this weekend, as the Big Ten joins the conference championship game movement inside the home of the Indianapolis Colts.

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By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer