Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson: From Big Ten Battles to MVP Candidates
Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson faced off for the first time on October 22, 2011. Cousins' 15th-ranked Michigan State Spartans were hosting Wilson's 4th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in a primetime ESPN game, with both teams looking to state their case as the best in the Big Ten.
A day that had begun with College Gameday in East Lansing ended in spectacular fashion. Standing at his own 45-yard line with the final seconds of regulation ticking off in a tie game, Cousins lofted a hail mary towards the end zone. The ball took a deflection and wound up in the hands of Keith Nichol, who was barely able to push it across the goal line for Cousins' third touchdown pass of the evening and a dramatic victory.
Eight years later, Cousins and Wilson are about to meet as starting quarterbacks for the sixth time in their careers. Like their first meeting, the stakes are high: the 8-3 Vikings and 9-2 Seahawks meet on Monday Night Football as two of the best teams in the NFC, each looking to push for a division title and the accompanying home playoff game. The two are no longer college QBs, but NFL MVP candidates and owners of the league's two best passer ratings. They've taken different journeys to get to this point, but their paths have crossed again and again over the past eight years.
Later in that 2011 season, the Spartans and Badgers met again in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game with a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line. This time, Wilson (with help from Montee Ball) got the better of Cousins in a classic. Both QBs threw three touchdown passes as the Badgers won, 42-39. Playing against Wilson in those two thrillers still sticks with Cousins eight years later.
"My senior year in college, when we played [Wisconsin] twice, it was the exact same game," Cousins said. "Same style, same talent. You could see he just had a natural feel for playing the position and feeling the rush, and finding the open guy, or sometimes when he’s not open still throwing him open, and that’s really been the way he’s played ever since."
A few months later, both Cousins and Wilson were off to the NFL. Despite prolific college careers, they weren't among the top quarterbacks selected. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III went with the first two picks, two more quarterbacks were taken later in the first round, and one went in the second. Late on Day 2, the Seahawks took Wilson with the 75th overall pick. The next morning, Cousins went 102nd overall to the Redskins, a surprising selection given that they had selected Griffin as their quarterback of the future two days earlier.
Eight months later, the Seahawks and Redskins met in the wild card round of the playoffs. Wilson, who had quickly won the starting job over free agent acquisition Matt Flynn in Seattle, led his team to a comeback victory over Griffin and the Redskins. Cousins watched from the sidelines, then came in late in the game after Griffin was injured.
The pair's first meeting as starters came two seasons later, as Cousins was again filling in for an injured Griffin when the two teams met in 2014. Cousins played well, but Wilson was better. Wilson threw for 200 yards and two touchdowns and showed his incredible dual-threat ability with a career-high 122 rushing yards and another score as the Seahawks won. They'd meet again in 2017 — Cousins' third and final year as the full-time starter in Washington — and Cousins would get the best of Wilson, who threw two interceptions. Then once more last season, this time with Cousins coming up short as a member of the Vikings.
This game feels different. While Wilson has enjoyed an extremely successful career that includes a Super Bowl victory, Cousins has struggled to prove himself as a member of the NFL's elite QB class. But in 2019, Cousins is enjoying the best season of his career. He leads the league in passer rating, 2.7 points clear of Wilson in second place. He has the Vikings on track for a return to the playoffs, and a win over the Seahawks would not only go a long way towards winning the NFC North, it would tie up his head-to-head record with Wilson at three wins apiece. Unsurprisingly, Cousins has a lot of respect for Wilson and what he's been able to accomplish.
“He has all the traits," Cousins said. "His ability to play off-schedule, and a lot of players do it, but he does it in a way where he still protects the football, he still avoids a lot of sacks, he’s very accurate on the run. He's a talented player."
In order for the Vikings to beat the Seahawks in Seattle on Monday night, they'll have to find a way to slow down Wilson. With Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, and now Josh Gordon, Wilson has weapons to go with his skills and experience. He's considered the runner-up to the Ravens' Lamar Jackson for MVP right now, and for good reason.
"First of all, he’s really accurate," Mike Zimmer said. "They’ve got the quick passing game. They’ve got the RPO’s. They’ve got the shots down the field. When he starts to scramble, he throws such a great deep ball that a lot of bad things can happen."
The Vikings did a good job at limiting Wilson's arm in last season's loss, holding him to 72 passing yards. But he burned them for 61 yards on the ground, including a 40-yard scramble late in the fourth quarter.
"The biggest thing is he moves really well," Zimmer said. "We have to be disciplined in our rush lanes and be where we’re supposed to be because he’ll go up, he’ll go back, he’ll go out, he’ll go left, he’ll go right. He goes all the different places. The receivers do a great job of taking off when he starts to scramble. He sees an end come underneath and he’s out."
The difference that gives the Vikings reason to believe this year is the level of Cousins' play. He was held to 203 yards and lost a fumble in that 21-7 loss last December. That was the loss that sparked a change in offensive coordinators, which ended up being incredibly beneficial for Cousins. With help from Dalvin Cook’s superstar breakout, the presence of Stefon Diggs, and a system that plays to his strengths as a passer, Cousins is rolling. After a slow start, he's playing the best football of his life. And he’ll likely get Adam Thielen back this week.
With a great performance and a victory on Monday night, Cousins could continue his ascent up the MVP ladder — perhaps even leaping past the man he's been facing off with since their college days.