This may be a bit of a biased opinion, but the most exciting college football game of the 2011 season was played on October 22, in East Lansing, MI, between my Michigan State Spartans and the visiting Wisconsin Badgers. Sparty came into the game having won the first two legs of a rather brutal 4-game stretch that included back-to-back home games against in-state rival Michigan and Wisconsin, sandwiched between road games against Ohio St. and Nebraska. Sparty was riding an emotional high after a 28-14 home win over in-state rival Michigan, but even some of the most loyal MSU fans (myself included, of course) didn’t honestly think they had a chance to beat Wisconsin. Why not? Well, NC St. transfer QB Russell Wilson and the Badgers had won their first 6 games by a combined score of 301-58. That start was punctuated by a 48-17 home demolishing of Big 10/12 newcomer Nebraska, a game that I figured beforehand would be the most closely contested of the entire Big 10/12 season.
If you didn’t see the October 22 tilt, you missed an instant classic. Wisconsin jumped out to a 14-0 lead, scoring twice in a minute and six seconds in the first quarter. In the second, Sparty scored 23 unanswered points, kicked off by an early safety. A ho-hum third led to one hell of a final period. After a Keshawn Martin TD catch and 2-point conversion, Sparty was up 31-17 with under 11 minutes to play. You’d think with the way Sparty’s D had contained the Badgers’ powerful offense up to that point, the game was over. Of course, Sparty had to make it interesting. Instead of solely running the ball in an attempt to burn clock, QB Kirk Cousins threw at the most inopportune times, to no avail. 3 Sparty series and 4 total yards of offense later, the Badgers knotted the game at 31. With a minute and twenty-six seconds left in regulation, Cousins and the Spartan offense started at their own 23, and I hoped that they would somehow get the game to overtime.
After converting a third and long from their own 25, I figured Sparty had some momentum in their favor. Then, fittingly, Cousins was sacked and fumbled. Luckily, Sparty OT Dan France recovered, but they were still faced with 2nd and 20 from their 24. Somehow, Sparty recovered from that and from Wisconsin’s 44, had to convert a 3rd and 1 with only 4 seconds left to play. There wasn’t enough time to run even one play, so basically everyone in Spartan Stadium knew what was coming: Hail Mary. Now, any football fan at any level can tell you that these hardly every work, whether coming before the end of the first half or when a team is attempting to tie or win a game. Cousins took the snap, dropped back a bit, and threw the ball downfield…to someone in a Spartans uniform. The ball bounced off of WR B.J. Cunningham’s facemask into the hands of QB-turned-WR Keith Nichols, who then engaged in an epic battle with two Badger defenders near the goal line. Nichols was initially ruled short by an official. I was peeved. Then, after looking at replays, the head referee announced that Nichols broke the plane. Touchdown. AP #4 Wisconsin loses. AP #15 Sparty wins. I scream so loud that I get dizzy.
Today, Sparty and Wisconsin will square off in the inaugural Big 10/12 conference championship game. It will be played in Indianapolis in Lucas Oil Stadium, for some odd reason. I guess Chicago’s Soldier Field wasn’t alluring enough. Wisconsin is almost a 10-point favorite, and somewhat rightfully so. Not only have Wisconsin’s two losses come by a combined 10 points, they were victims of two fluky pass plays. Following the Michigan St. game, they were beaten by a 40-yard Braxton Miller TD pass with 20 seconds left to play on the road against Ohio St. Since the back-to-back debacles, the Badgers have won their last four games by a combined score of 177-54, including a home 45-7 thrashing of suddenly beleaguered Penn St.
Meanwhile, Sparty followed up that thriller against Wisconsin with easily their worst performance of the season, a 24-3 road loss to Nebraska. However, they were able to bounce back, winning their final four games, including a 31-17 road win over Northwestern in their regular-season finale. During this four-game stretch, Cousins has been spectacular. He has completed 66% of his passes and thrown 10 touchdowns against only one intereception. RB Le’Veon Bell, who started the season backing up Edwin Baker, has also been great. He’s racked up 362 rushing yards for a gaudy 6 yards per carry and has gotten the tough yards on the ground that Sparty has needed. Martin has come on to be a solid #2 WR to Cunningham over the last half of the season, but #3 is still the go-to guy. The 6’2″, 215-lb stud has averaged 100 receiving yards per game over Sparty’s last four, hauling in six TD catches in the process.
QB Kirk Cousins: 2,735 YDS, 21 TD, 6 INT, 64 CMP%, 149 RAT
RB Le’Veon Bell: 147 CAR, 794 YDS, 10 TD
WR B.J. Cunningham: 67 CAT, 1,125 YDS, 9 TD
WR Keshawn Martin: 53 CAT, 627 YDS, 4 TD
QB Russell Wilson: 2,692 YDS, 28 TD, 3 INT, 73 CMP%, 193 RAT
RB Montee Ball: 248 CAR, 1,622 YDS, 29 TD
WR Nick Toon: 52 CAT, 788 YDS, 9 TD
WR Jared Abbrederis: 48 CAT, 749 YDS, 6 TD
MSU Offense (national rankings in parentheses):
Total: 383.7 ypg (64), Passing: 244.7 ypg (46), Rushing: 139 ypg (78), Scoring: 30.2 ppg (43)
Total: 477.1 ypg (12), Passing: 230.4 ypg (63), Rushing: 246.7 ypg (10), Scoring: 44.8 ppg (4)
Total: 266.7 ypg (3), Passing: 164.2 ypg (8), Rushing: 102.5 ypg (11), Scoring: 15.4 ppg (6)
Total: 278.2 ypg (7), Passing: 144.5 ypg (3), Rushing: 133.7 ypg (44), Scoring: 15.2 ppg (4)
Both Sparty and Wisconsin are fairly equal on the defensive side of the ball, but the Badgers have the clear advantage when they’re on the attack. Their offense is led by Ball, and yes, he has really scored 29 rushing touchdowns this year and 34, total. Since their loss to Ohio St., a game in which he rushed for “only” 85 yards on 17 carries, he has averaged 27 carries, 192 yards, and almost 3 touchdowns a game. In the October 22 game, Ball finished with 115 yards on 18 carries, but Wisconsin was forced to throw the ball a bit more once they had fallen behind late.
Cousins will need to start strong, and he’d be best served by feeding Cunningham, Martin and TE Brian Linthicum the ball early and often. Bell and Baker will obviously be a part of the offensive festivities, but as numbers show, Sparty’s run game has been below-average all year. Sparty’s D has looked mortal over the last half of the season, but has continued to make the necessary plays. DT Jerel Worthy and DB Trenton Robinson are the key performers on a very talented Sparty defensive unit that will have to do whatever they can to slow down the vaunted Badgers offense. Talented DE William Gholston will play for Sparty tonight, having missed their previous matchup against Wisconsin due to suspension.
Sparty had the advantage of playing the last game against Wisconsin at home. I’d like to guess that Indianapolis is closer to East Lansing than Madison, WI, but that probably won’t matter in the slightest tonight. Yes, Wisconsin has been rolling since their shocking loss to the Buckeyes, but 3 of their last 4 wins have come against virtual cupcakes. The one school I wouldn’t consider a cupcake, Penn St., was blown out. Sparty hasn’t exactly gone through a gauntlet since their demoralizing loss to Nebraska, either, but like Wisconsin, they seem to have gotten better in all three phases (offense, defense, special teams) over the last month.
Montee Ball can’t have a…well…ball tonight. Sparty must pressure Wilson the same way they did the first go-round, when he threw 2 picks. Cousins and Co. have to execute, especially on third down, because I highly doubt even an A+ effort from Sparty’s defense will be enough to totally control Wisconsin’s high-powered offense. Wisconsin wants to get back to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to TCU on New Year’s day, 21-19. Sparty wants to play in its first Rose Bowl since 1988 and prove to a shitload of doubters that they are indeed for real. Someone has to win.
It will be Sparty in a close one, 38-35. (I hope.)