Meet the 2011 Big Ten Title Game Teams
P4RB. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It doesn’t mean anything to you. But it means everything to Michigan State. Its meaning: Prepare For the Rose Bowl. And it has become a motivating acronym for the Spartans in their improbable quest for the Big Ten championship and trip to Pasadena.
The 10-2 Spartans will try to take the next step to their first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season on Saturday night, when they play 10-2 Wisconsin in Indianapolis in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. It will be a rematch of the teams’ October 22 meeting in East Lansing, which the Spartans won 37-31 on a last-second Hail Mary heave called “Rocket” in what was considered by most to be the game of the year in the conference.
“It’s a testament to the way the program is building,” guard Joel Foreman said after MSU dispatched Northwestern on Saturday. “That was real important to us in the summer and during the spring, being able to have successful and consistent winning seasons and to repeat.”
Michigan State, which has won 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time ever, hatched the P4RB idea back in the summer. The team got the idea from Wade Salem, the brother of Spartan running backs coach Brad Salem, who runs an organization called Coaching 4 Life that helps institutions develop character qualities. Wade Salem met with MSU players in February and said every bit of their focus should be toward a making it to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. So far, so good.
“I go out to the Manning camp this summer, I go to the Elite 11 in California, I’m doing summer running with our team, summer lifting, all the winter workouts, spring ball,” Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins said back in July. “We’re not just doing that for no reason. We’re doing it to prepare for a Rose Bowl.”
Michigan State came close to reaching the Big Ten’s holy grail in 2010. The Spartans were tri-champs of the Big Ten along with Wisconsin and Ohio State. But the Spartans were relegated to the Capital One Bowl, while the Badgers (Rose) and Buckeyes (Sugar) went to the BCS. Now, Michigan State is one win from notching school’s first BCS bowl bid, as the Spartans are one of just four Big Ten schools never to have played in the BCS (Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana are the others).
Expectation entering 2011 were high in East Lansing. But few, if any, were predicting a Legends Division title for the Spartans back in August. This team had some issues to deal with, particularly on the offensive line. It was inconsistent play there in 2010 that was keeping Michigan State from being an elite team. The Spartans had to replace three starters up front. That’s why most were picking Nebraska to win the division in its first season in the conference.
“When we have lost to Iowa, couldn’t run it, when we lost to Ohio State, couldn’t run it, when we lost to Alabama, couldn’t run it,” Dantonio said back at Big Ten media days when chronicling 2010. “That really is the difference-maker.”
While Michigan State ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing, it finished with a flurry by running for over 100 yards in each of the last four games. And in the end, the Spartans still found a way to win the Legends. How? Defense, which is the best defense in the Big Ten, and the prolific passing of Cousins.
“If things go south up front, I can’t let my play on the back end go south,” Cousins said. “I can’t start trying to do too much because we’re not running ball and try to get it all back in one play. … I need to make sure to stay patient in those situations.”
Michigan State’s lone Big Ten loss was at Nebraska, 24-3, which was part of a grueling October run that saw the Spartans win at Ohio State, come home and beat Michigan and Wisconsin before losing at Nebraska, a game in which Michigan State totaled just 187 yards and Cousins hit just 11-of-27 passes for 86 yards with an interception.
Other than that outing and a 31-13 non-conference loss at Notre Dame, Cousins and the defense were sharp. He knows that when the offense hits some lulls, the defense is able to pick it up. The unit is led by tackle Jerel Worthy, linebacker Denicos Allen and defensive backs Johnny Adams, among others. The stats don’t lie. Michigan State ranks first in the Big Ten and third in the nation in defense (266.7 ypg).
Unlike Michigan State, Wisconsin was expected to win the Leaders Division and be the elite team in the Big Ten. If not for losses on last-second touchdown passes to Michigan State (37-31) and Ohio State (33-29) on consecutive Saturdays in October, the Badgers would be right in the thick of the BCS title hunt.
That left Wisconsin in a hole as November started. But the Badgers won their last four games and got some help down the stretch with losses by Penn State and Ohio State to finish 10-2. On Saturday, the Badgers won a de facto Leaders Division title game over the Nittany Lions, 45-7, erasing any doubt as to who was the best team in the division and sending the Badgers to the Big Ten championship game.
“We had a group of men in our room that we knew would take one day at a time to get to where we wanted to be,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said after the Penn State win. “They started on a process to get through the last four weeks. Bottom line: We won a trophy today to earn a way to Indianapolis and can’t wait to get there.”
Other than the MSU and OSU setbacks, Wisconsin has cruised through its schedule. The Badger offense is No. 1 in the Big Ten (477.1 ypg) with quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball leading the charge. Either can make a great case to be the Big Ten Player of the Year. Wilson is the nation’s most efficient passer, while Ball paces the Big Ten in rushing (135.2 ypg) and has set a Big Ten single-season record for touchdowns with 34, just five from tying the NCAA mark.
“Forty-five points is a lot of points against a good defense,” said Bielema, who’s teams have won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons. “I think that’s the part that really gets lost. The numbers that Montee Ball and Russell have put up have been against teams that have been ranked nationally.”
In jetting to a 6-0 start, the Badgers were unchallenged, winning by an average of 40.5 points with the closest victory coming by 31 points and climbing to No. 4 in the polls before the loss at Michigan State. Wisconsin closed the season by winning its last four games by an average of 30.8 points.
“Obviously, this is the first time in Big Ten history we get rematches,” said Bielema. “When this whole formula and format came up, everybody knew it would be a possibility, even leaving the field against Michigan State, a lot of our guys probably thought to that moment.”
Now, that moment has arrived.
TOP GAME: Dominating. There was no other way to describe Michigan State’s 37-21 victory at Iowa. Last year, the Spartans got whipped 37-6 at Iowa, in what was MSU’s lone Big Ten loss. This year was all about payback in what was a cathartic victory that showed how dominating the Spartans could be, as MSU totaled 443 yards and generated three turnovers en route to limiting Iowa to 87 yards rushing.
TOP MOMENT: In a 31-31 game with Wisconsin, MSU QB Kirk Cousins called “Rocket” As the last seconds of the game dripped off the clock, Cousins heaved the ball toward the end zone. The pass hit another player and bounced into the hands of Keith Nichol just outside the end zone. Nichol fought his was over the goal line for the winning score.
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYERS:
QB Kirk Cousins. Tough, savvy and smart, the senior quarterback is the quintessential leader who has continued to develop as a passer. He rarely makes a mistake and knows how to read the tenor of his team. Cousins has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,735 yards with 21 touchdowns and six picks.
WR B.J. Cunningham. The school’s all-time leading receiver has seven 100-yard receiving games. Cunningham has the speed to stretch defenses and the toughness to go over the middle, showing a knack for working through traffic and getting open. And he rarely drops the ball, notching 67 catches for 1,125 yards and nine scores.
RB Le’Veon Bell. With Edwin Baker struggling down the stretch, Bell has assumed a bigger role. He’s a hard runner who excels between the tackles. Bell also has a burst to turn the corner and go the distance. Bell has 794 yards rushing (5.4 ypc) and 10 touchdowns.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYERS:
T Jerel Worthy. A massive force on the inside, Worthy has emerged as one of the nation’s top run stuffers who time and again demands double teams. Worthy is difficult to knock off his feet and has a knack for shedding blocks.
LB Denicos Allen. At 5-10, 218 pounds, Allen is a whirling dervish who makes plays from sideline to sideline. The sophomore is difficult to knock off his feet and has been a leader for a rebuilt linebacking corps, ranking No. 2 in the Big Ten in sacks.
CB Johnny Adams. A shutdown corner who plays alongside fellow standouts Trenton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis, Adams is equally adept at covering the pass as he is stopping the run. He has helped turn a once-leaky secondary into a strength for one of the nation’s best defenses, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in passes defended.
TOP GAME: The Badgers looked absolutely dominating in a 48-17 romp over Nebraska on October 1. Wisconsin ripped the Cornhuskers for 486 yards and generated three turnovers vs. the No. 8-ranked team in the nation in its signature win of 2011.
TOP MOMENT: With the Leaders Division title on the line, the Badgers ripped Penn State and its highly-rated defense, 45-7. Wisconsin had 450 yards, while an underrated defense generated four turnovers in a thoroughly dominating performance when such an effort had to be delivered.
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYERS:
QB Russell Wilson. What more can be said about the N.C. State transfer? He’s the nation’s most efficient passer, injecting an aerial game the program hadn’t seen since the days of Randy Wright in the 1980s. Wilson has completed 72 percent of his passes for 2,692 yards with 28 touchdowns and only three interceptions. But even more vital: Wilson quickly emerged as a leader.
RB Montee Ball. Just call him Mr. Touchdown, as Ball has set the Big Ten single-season record for touchdown (34) while also pacing the Big Ten in rushing (135.2 ypg) en route to running for 1,622 yards.
WR Nick Toon. The son of former Wisconsin legend wideout Al, Nick Toon is the guy who stretches defense, creating space for Ball and Co., to run. Toon is a security blanket on third downs with his ability to navigate through traffic and get open. He led the team with 52 catches for 788 yards and nine scores.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYERS:
LB Mike Taylor. He has emerged to become one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten for one of the most underrated defenses in the nation. Taylor is a heady player who rarely is out of position and has a knack for making plays, pacing the Big Ten in tackles.
LB Chris Borland. He has rebounded from a season-ending shoulder injury in 2010 to again rank as one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers. Borland is just 5-11, 244 pounds, but he’s a Tasmanian Devil who plays at one speed. That’s why he’s No. 2 in the Big Ten in tackles.
CB Antonio Fenelus, Wisconsin. He’s part of a strong Badger secondary that excels in man coverage. Fenelus is a good combination of size and speed and has a knack in coverage who is No. 4 in the Big Ten in passes defended and No. 1 in interceptions.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.