Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…The Big Ten Championship vs. Wisconsin

Jonathan Schopp

After their 31-17 win in Evanston over Northwestern, the Spartans head to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship against the Wisconsin Badgers at 8:17 on Saturday night.

Offense

This unit is getting better and could be peaking at the right time. After getting over the major hurdle that was injuries and lineup shifts to the Offensive Line, everything is coming together for this group now, and they’ve still got some room to accelerate.

The Spartans ran it effectively once again (on the road) after getting through a slow start. Le’Veon Bell, Rock Baker, and oddly enough even Kirk Cousins found space on the ground against Northwestern. That trend will need to continue against Wisconsin in order for MSU to stay balanced, but won’t be as easy with a Defense led by a couple outstanding Linebackers. If MSU cannot stay balanced Saturday, they could have a tougher night than we’ve seen in a while.

Though the Badgers are more susceptible to the passing attack and you would look for a big play on that side of the ball, the Spartans should not be able to beat them only through the air. The Offense needs to identify what Wisconsin is giving them early, and take it! Whether that’s the short pass or inside run, if they take what Bucky’s left for the taking it will open up the rest of their options to balance things out. It also doesn’t hurt that the Badger Defense has played most of the year against inferior competition, and has struggled critically in its biggest moments of the year.

Kirk Cousins might be playing his best right now. As long as he doesn’t press, he should have a good Big Ten Championship game. The key for Cousins again will be to stay within himself and read the Defense properly. MSU and Wisconsin have obviously played often in these last few years, so it’s hard to believe there could be many surprises from the Wisconsin D. But if there are, Cousins hasto avoid the critical mistake that could be oh-too-costly in his last Big Ten effort. As Bill Parcells used to remind us, more big games are lost than they’re won. Cousins is ready for this moment.

The Tight Ends have been banged up as the season’s carried on, but look like they’re coming into their own as well. Brian Linthicum has found a sure hand catching it lately, often to gain 1st Downs. While Dion Sims has yet to strike big, yet might be the key word there. Sims is a walking mismatch given his size and athletic ability at the position. This Offense should look to exploit to their strengths and mismatches with the Tight Ends available.

They receiving core has predictably been pretty reliable, with Martin and Cunningham raising their game as the stakes have risen from week to week. But don’t forget about Keith Nichol. This “heart and soul” Spartan will surely come with confidence against the Badgers after the “Hail Mary.” But don’t forget that he threw the Big Ten Championship winning pass last year at Penn St. Nichol might not have thrown a pass yet this year, but that doesn’t mean he won’t throw one Saturday night. Keep an eye out for #7, you never know what he might do next.

Defense

Since he returned to Spartan Football, Coach D has said over and over the football is a “game of inches.” On Saturday night, we’ll get a magnified look at about 36 inches on each side of the line of scrimmage. Whoever dominates that space should end up booking their tickets to Pasadena. The biggest challenge for this unit is to slow down the Wisconsin rushing attack. It’s not realistic to expect to shut it down, but the more MSU can relatively slow the incredible Badger Offensive Line, Montee Ball, James White, and Russell Wilson, the more likely the win.

Wilson struggled for a bit in October after he threw his first interception of the year. It was really his first mistake of 2011, and helped start a Badger collapse at the end of the 1st Half. Wisconsin has played a lot of football since then, and Wilson has had immense success. He ended up with the nation’s top QB Rating (192.9). Montee Ball has also had outstanding numbers, rushing for 1622 yards and 29 TDs this year. The Spartans as a team only totaled 1668 and 17, respectively.

No doubt this unit will have its hands full, but it’s also playing better than it was in October. And then there’s William Gholston factor to consider. Russell Wilson didn’t’ feel him coming off the edge in October because of the Big Ten forced suspension that Spartan Nation already reported on extensively. Gholston’s presence should give MSU a pressure they did not have the first time around, though Denzel Drone played well that night. Though extremely strong against the run, Wisconsin has allowed 20 sacks this year. The Spartans finished tied for second in the country with 38 sacks, and will have to get after Wilson again to keep the super powered Badger attack in hand. Again, that will largely tie in with an ability to stop the run.

It’s been fun to watch this unit develop, which I argue is one of the things fans like most about following College programs. The Defense has progressed from the first week, and is still getting better in this transition year from the Greg Jones-Eric Gordon era to the Max Bullough era. One of the most interesting things to watch has been the emergence of Bullough.

Early on he was practically trying to do it all (which was not on him) at times. Now he’s completely emerged as the unit’s leader at the MIKE Linebacker position and should remain so for the next two years. He’s responsible for a lot in this Defense. As Mark Dantonio told us earlier this year, the MIKE is responsible to relay the called Defense and get the unit lined up correctly before the snap, amongst other duties. How many times have you seen the Spartans in mass confusion before a snap this year? I can’t think of many, and a lot of that credit goes to Bullough.

No one player can do it alone though, and since this Defense is still young and somewhat inexperienced, it’s even more important there’s a leader who has a strong command of what Pat Narduzzi and Dantonio want. Without that centralized figure of organization and execution, this unit wouldn’t be having such an awesome year. They know they’ll need their best to come out on top and stuff the Wisconsin attack.

Special Teams

Brett Bielema told Spartan Nation early this year that he felt his Badgers had a great advantage on Special Teams, but a couple of major gaffes at key times (ex. the punt block by MSU late in the 1st Half) have cost Wisconsin dearly in recent big games. Though the Spartans and Badgers seem pretty evenly matched across the field, the Spartans may have an edge here. And since we’re again expecting a tight matchup, only a slight edge might prove the difference.

The Spartans’ unit is playing its best as the regular season has come to an end. The kick off and kick return units are solid, as Kevin Muma has made progress during the year and Nick Hill has become a returner who may still break one all the way this year. Mike Sadler’s punts and the punt coverage have been a standout on this team overall, and without their performance, MSU isn’t in this Championship game. As we all know, Keshawn Martin is seeing the field and moving through space very well right now. But after Martin’s toasted the Badgers last year and left a reminder against Northwestern last week, don’t be shocked if Bielema punts completely away from this home run threat at some point.

Dan Conroy has also gotten enough work in the last month to feel confident that he’ll be ready to go inside the relatively cozy and calm Lucas Field setting and kick well. When it comes to Special Teams play in Championship games it’s not always a big play that’s made, but rather a big mistake that’s made, which can cost a team dearly. Every snap counts for this unit.

Overall

Brett Bielema told us earlier this year that the MSU-Wisconsin football rivalry had grown to the point of being “trophy worthy.” That’s how far this rivalry has come on the field in the last five years. Bielema will ironically get his wish on Saturday as the biggest trophy in the entire Big Ten goes on the line.

The Rose Bowl hasn’t come easy to Michigan State Football. MSU has been kept of out Rose Bowls in the 60s, 70s, 90s, and 2000s now, for a variety of reasons. Arguably no program has ever been kept out of more Rose Bowls by nutty tie breakers, illogical rules, and stupid decisions to embody the BCS (only established to select the two teams for the National Title game) to pick its Big Ten representative. The Spartans haven’t been since 1987, as everyone knows, but nor should Spartan Nation forget that MSU also qualified in 1990 and again in 2010.

Keeping with that trend, the Spartans will now have to beat Wisconsin for a third time in less than two seasons. Otherwise, they’ll likely be packing for Florida to finish off this statement making 2011 season. The Badgers’ most impressive wins this year are only over Nebraska at home, and I guess Illinois on the road after a very sloppy start. Honestly, they kinda of backed into this game after the explosion at Penn St. And once again, the Wisconsin record has been inflated by a pretty soft schedule. Look who they’ve beaten, not how much they’ve won by.

The Spartans have won at Ohio St., beaten the Badgers and Michigan at home, and then Iowa and Northwestern on the road. When it comes to being battle tested, the Spartans have the edge. But for the first time in league history, the Big Ten Champion won’t be decided by the season’s best cumulative effort.

Keep this in mind too, the last two MSU victories over Wisconsin have come after huge Bucky blowouts the week before. Bielema’s Badgers won 70-3 over Austin Peay last year, 59-7 over Indiana in October, and then 45-7 over the Nittany Lions last week, including running up 17 more in the final two Quarters.

We’ve talked all year about the 2011 Spartans making a statement. Yet, as they’ve built that statement, many in the national media (ESPN specifically) haven’t recognized the message. Instead, they’ve stayed on their own message and picked against MSU in a nearly uniformed fashion. Only moments after the blow out over Penn St., the Four Letter Network pundits all took the Badgers in the title game. You wonder whether they were told they had to stick to the expansive pre-season ESPN-Wisconsin storyline.

The Spartans have been preparing for the Rose Bowl for nearly 11 months now, with the real efforts beginning once Mark Dantonio came back into town in December of 2006. The foundation has long solidified now as the Spartans have already backed up a Big Ten Title with a Legend’s Division Championship. But that big prize is still one step away.

Expect a close one, and expect it to be tight from start to finish this time. The Spartans cannot afford to let the high-octane Badger attack get going like it did early in October. That reminds me; keep an eye on the 1st Down production of each Offense. The team that wins on 1st Down will probably control the game more. MSU can also ill afford to let Wisconsin get up more than 10 points at any time. The only reason they were able to come back from that 14-point hole in October was that it happened so quickly, there were still three and a half Quarters left to recover.

This game won’t be won without a complete 60-minute performance. The team that plays all 60 minutes without hitting a big dip or a lull will win the Big Ten Championship. Spartan Football has been preparing for Rose Bowl for a long time now, and the Spartan Nation can’t wait for the results of their final exam on Saturday night.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Maybe the Big Ten should take Thanksgiving weekend as a Conference wide bye week. Many have tired of the whining around the league about playing during the holiday weekend. Why not take the entire week off and then play the season’s final games on the following weekend? That would push the Big Ten title game to the second weekend of December, and highlight the unique values of the Big Ten relative to other leagues. The Conference would have plenty of time to properly promote the Championship game, and turn what was once a great disadvantage in Bowl preparation (by ending the season so soon) completely on its ear.
  2. Nebraska turned out to be exactly who we thought they were. Before the year, there weren’t many who agreed that the Huskers would hover somewhere around the middle of the Big Ten. And though they caught a scheduling break at Penn St. for reasons that no one ever wanted to see happen, they still ended up 5th in the league. It’s a little bit different playing in the big leagues every week, eh Huskers? Where’s the Four Letter (ESPN) now? Where’s the experts who said the Huskers would roll to the Big Ten Championship game, building on their claim that the Big Ten was ultra weak. Maybe next year…but this league won’t get any easier now with an updated “Urban look” to it, and hopefully a “Pirate” look coming too.
  3. How silly is it that Wisconsin shares the Vest Division (Leaders) Championship with Penn St. when they hammered them so badly on Saturday? The Big Ten needs to take immediate action to only declare Co-Division Champions when necessary, when teams that are tied haven't actually played each other. There should've never been a chance for Michigan to share the Legends with Michigan State after they got waxed, nor should Penn St. share their division with the Badgers. Doesn’t a head-to-head matchup break that tie? Come on, B1G Ten.

*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum

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