Dienhart: Two Teams Deliver One for the Ages
INDIANAPOLIS – The notion of three yards and cloud of dust was trashed on this night. Instead, the inaugural Big Ten championship game was a celebration of yards, points–and more yards and points. And a running into the kicker penalty on Michigan State that killed the Spartans’ last hope to score to rally for the winning score.
Wisconsin won this more-than-a-point-minute inaugural edition of the Big Ten title game, taking a scintillating 42-39 victory over Michigan State.
Few thought this game had much of a chance to live up to the first meeting in October, a 37-31 heart-stopper victory for Michigan State that concluded with a Hail Mary pass called “Rocket” from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol as time expired.
But, it did. And honestly, we should have seen this coming. The winning team has scored at least 34 points in eight of the last nine meetings between these teams. But a big key for the Badgers: They had no turnovers, while the Spartans had two.
After Wisconsin took a 42-39 lead, Michigan State took over on its 37-yard line with 3:42 to go. But the Spartans went three-and-out and punted. Wisconsin couldn’t move the move the ball on its subsequent possession and was forced to punt. But Spartan defensive back Isaiah Lewis—an Indianapolis native—ran into the punter, resulting in a Wisconsin first down. The Badgers killed out the clock and the confetti flew.
Wisconsin is headed back to its second consecutive Rose Bowl. But even more vital: The Badgers have established themselves as the top program in the Big Ten.
A date with Oregon waits. This is a Ducks team that ranks among the nation’s best, especially an offense that includes running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas. And it will be a motivated Oregon team which has lost it last two BCS games: The national championship game last season to Auburn and the Rose Bowl after the 2009 season.
Can Wisconsin stop the Oregon defense? Can Oregon stop the Wisconsin offense?
This was a back-and-forth slugfest reminiscent of a backyard football game that was an 81-point point bonanza. Bottom line: It wasn’t a good night for what were two of the Big Ten’s best defenses. But in a city that was built around the speed of the Indy 500, each team fittingly raced up and down the field all night. Defense? It was optional.
Michigan State entered the game with the No. 1 defense in the Big Ten (266.7 ypg), also pacing the conference in rushing defense (102.5) and ranking fourth vs. the pass (164.2 ypg). Wisconsin came in with the No. 2 defense in the Big Ten (278.2), No. 4 vs. the run (133.7) and No. 1 vs. the pass (144.5).
And in the most important defensive stat of all—scoring–Michigan State led the Big Ten (15.2 ppg) and Wisconsin was second (15.4).
Almost all of those numbers were trashed before halftime. Yes, it was that kind of night. Michigan State finished with 471 yards, while Wisconsin had 345.
What would Bo and Woody think?
Michigan State talked about earning respect on the eve of this game. The Spartans were a 9.5 underdog vs. a team it had beaten earlier this year.
Where was the love?
This was a Spartan squad that has won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time ever. But the Badgers weren’t going to be denied. Wisconsin rallied from a 29-21 halftime deficit to claim victory despite strong efforts from Cousins, who hit 22-of-30 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns with a pick and Le’Veon Bell, who ran 18 times for 106 yards and a score.
The offenses hit the ground running on this night, combing for 50 first-half points. The Badgers raced to a 21-7 first-quarter lead, threatening to build an insurmountable edge. But after the first quarter, Wisconsin was muted by Michigan State.
Montee Ball ran for 105 yards in the first quarter; at halftime, he had 107 yards. And Russell Wilson also was kept in check, hitting just 5-of-9 passes for 30 yards, a touchdown and two sacks in the first half, as Wisconsin trailed, 29-21.
But Ball and Wisconsin came to life in the second half—especially Wilson, who finished 17-of-24 for 187 yards with three touchdowns en route to earning player of the game accolades. Ball ran 27 times for 137 yards and three touchdowns and caught a scoring pass to come up one short of tying the NCAA single-season touchdown mark of 39.
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.