Tag Archives: Big Ten championship game

Wisconsin Season Report Card

Heading into this season, numerous pundits including myself predicted the Wisconsin Badgers would take a step backwards despite winning 10 games in 2015 and finish mid-pack in the Big Ten West due to their incredibly tough schedule and new personnel.

Instead, the Badgers defied those preseason predictions by beating three top-10 opponents and winning the Big Ten West division to earn another trip to the Big Ten Championship versus Penn State, another program that shattered preseason expectations. It appeared that the Badgers would cruise to a conference title after seizing a 28-7 first half advantage, but the defense, which had been the strength of this team, squandered the lead and the Nittany Lions used their explosive offense to pull off a 38-31 victory. For most programs, accumulating ten victories would be a formidable accomplishment, but the season left something to be desired.

Now, Wisconsin will take on the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at Arlington, Texas on January 2. It certainly isn’t the prize the Badgers had hoped for but it’s still a New Year’s Six bowl game and they hope to end the season on a high note.

Passing offense: C

The Badgers had more continuity at quarterback last season with Joel Stave under center every game and were 55th overall in total passing yards, but this year, they dropped to 98th in that category, as senior Bart Houston and freshman Alex Hornibrook combined to throw for 2329 yards along with just 13 scores and 10 interceptions.

Houston’s experience and slightly more mobility and accuracy than his teammate offered a nice change of pace and kept defenses on their toes and while the freshmen did show flashes of brilliance and poise in the pocket, he struggled at times to consistently hit open receivers.

As for receiving, the speedy Jazz Peavy (43 catches, 635 yards, five touchdowns) became the Badgers top weapon and tight end Troy Fumagalli (41 catches, 497 yards) proved to be an important security blanket this season.

In a nutshell, the passing offense was the definition of mediocre. It wasn’t dreadful but it certainly wasn’t great and didn’t put the Badgers over the top when they needed an offensive boost.

Rushing offense: A-

Last season, the Badgers stumbled in this department as they ranked 97thwith 1,954 rushing yards, 10th in conference while averaging 150.3 per game. Corey Clement was out most of year due to a sports hernia surgery so the Badgers severely lacked a home-run hitting, dynamic playmaker in the backfield and the offensive line couldn’t stay healthy, losing three starters.

Fortunately, the vintage Wisconsin rushing attack, which was No. 1 in rushing yards in the Big Ten, returned and was the saving grace for the offense. With a reliable, stable O-line anchored by first-team All-American Ryan Ramczyk this season, Clement’s 1,304 rushing yards led the conference and as a result, the offense overall was more balanced and consistent this season.

Freshman Bradrick Shaw also gave Badgers fans reason to feel optimistic about next year in limited action. Shaw averaged a solid 5.2 yards per carry and rushed for 457 yards with five touchdowns.

Passing defense: B-

Similar to last season, the Badgers pass defense was a consistent source of strength though from a numbers standpoint, they fell a little, dropping from 2nd to 7th in yards allowed per game (206.1) in conference and falling from 2nd to 12th in the Big Ten in total yards allowed (2,679). Nonetheless, there was still plenty to like about the way Wisconsin played.

The Badgers were second nationally in takeaways (21) led by senior Leo Musso’s five interceptions and the pass rush was especially ferocious as junior T.J. Watt, who made the switch from tight end to linebacker, had a team-leading 10.5 sacks and was named second-team All-American.

However, even with all the positives in place, Wisconsin was exposed in the title game as Penn State’s taller, more physical receivers took advantage of the Badgers smaller-sized secondary. Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorely passed for 384 yards and four touchdowns. If Wisconsin truly wants to be win the Cotton Bowl, it will have to figure out how to limit big plays in the passing game.

Rushing defense: A

The Badgers rank second nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (96.9) and only Leonard Fournette surpassed the 100-yard mark against this unit. In fact, just six teams have allowed fewer than the eight rushing touchdowns Wisconsin surrendered. The Badgers also rank among the top 10 in yards allowed per carry (3.23).

Led by Olive Sagapolu and ends Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih, along with Alec James, the unheralded defensive line combined for 83 tackles and 7.5 sacks.

Wisconsin’s linebackers were an especially disruptive corps this season and consistently demonstrated explosive playmaking abilities. Leading tackler T.J. Edwards racked up 79 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks and Watt, younger brother of NFL players J. J. and Derek Watt, has 14.5 TFL for the season and an interception return touchdown. Jack Cichy (60 tackles), Ryan Connelly (54), Vince Biegel (39) and Garret Dooley (39) all chipped in at key moments for what is arguably the deepest and most talented set of linebackers in the Big Ten.

Special teams: C

Wisconsin had its share of ups and downs in this area. Starting kicker Rafael Gaglianone was out for the majority of the year with a back injury, forcing backup Andrew Endicott into action. He’s been just subpar, hitting 11-of-16 field goals (68.8 percent) with a long of 46. Anthony Lotti averages 37.7 yards on punts, which is last in conference and the return game lacks any explosiveness.

Overall: B

Wisconsin was in position to close the year on a high note and couldn’t finish against Penn State. Ultimately, the result will sting for a while and take some luster off of Paul Chryst’s second year as head coach.

Still, back-to-back 10-win seasons is pretty respectable and a 10-3 record probably isn’t what many fans expected given the tough schedule. And If Chryst can recruit the right players to fit his own system, the future of Wisconsin football looks bright.

E-mail Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia 

Will Wisconsin Make The Playoffs And Is It Worth It?

Down 17-7 to the Minnesota Gophers at halftime last Saturday, the Wisconsin Badgers playoff hopes seemed to be in serious jeopardy. However, the Badger faithful were able to let out a massive sigh of relief as Minnesota completely collapsed when quarterback Mitch Leidner threw four interceptions in the second half and Wisconsin retained Paul Bunyan’s axe for the 13th consecutive time with a 31-17 victory. Now Wisconsin is looking ahead to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis against Penn State as a conference title and possible playoff berth hang in the balance.

From a match-up standpoint, a game against the Nittany Lions is more favorable than one versus Ohio State or Michigan and gives the Badgers a much better shot at winning a Big Ten title, though not a guaranteed playoff spot. At the same time, though the Wolverines or Buckeyes would have been tougher opponents, Wisconsin would’ve had a straight shot into the playoff with a victory over either one of them. So what now?

Well, depending on how the playoff committee views conference titles and their significance or lack thereof, the team with the title will either advance to the playoff over the best team or the best team will advance even without the conference title.

If you agree with the former, then the winner of the Big Ten title should get in over Ohio State. End of story. Unless Clemson or Washington losses, Ohio State should not even be considered over the champion because some believe that since the Buckeyes didn’t do enough to make it into their own conference’s playoff, why should they get to go to the national playoffs?

If you agree with the latter, then Ohio State which has an 11-1 record with three top ten wins should advance. Those in this boat say why is winning a conference title a requirement to advance and why should it override other factors like strength of schedule, non-conference games, head-to-head and overall records.  Furthermore, they say every team that was included in the first two years of the College Football Playoff had a conference championship but then again, this is the first year the committee has ever weighed a one-loss non-conference champion with a résumé as incredible as the Buckeyes  against a two-loss conference champion.

If Penn State wins, I think they have a strong case to make the playoff due to its win over Ohio State but if it’s a Wisconsin victory, as difficult as it is for me to say, I don’t think they should beat out the Buckeyes, because they came into Madison and defeated us.

Maybe an upset of Clemson and/or Washington opens a playoff with two Big Ten teams, maybe even three, but unless all hell breaks loose, I do not see Wisconsin making the playoff.

I mean honestly, is it worth it to make the playoffs?

I have been debating this question all week because the fact of the matter is while making the playoff would be a mind-blowing achievement, it is downright scary to me to face a team like Alabama. While I think (and certainly hope) that the score would be closer than the last time Wisconsin played Alabama in a 35-17 loss in 2015, it would be still a loss. Why not just take the conference title and be content with a Rose Bowl berth and a bigger chance to win a game rather than get possibly slaughtered in the playoff?

It seems like a tempting settlement in a high profile lawsuit where one could walk away with millions or fight until the bitter end and risk losing everything. Some would say you’d be a fool to fight on and that sometimes it’s better to let go but if I have learned anything from college football is that anything is possible and those who refuse to fight to the bitter end never win. Remember Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007 or Stanford over USC the same year? They could’ve given up with impossible odds stacked against them but welcomed the challenge head-on and came away victorious. You never know what can happen.

With all this being said, it’s pretty obvious I want them to make the playoff. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime achievement and even if a beating happens, would you want to loss in the NCAA Tournament or win the NIT? Yes, I’d be ecstatic if we won the Rose Bowl but it’s all about the biggest trophy. While I don’t see the playoffs in our future, I hope I am dead wrong and am cheering for chaos to ensue, because as they say, anything is possible.

E-mail Mike at mike [dot] tews [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051

Image courtesy of Wikipedia 

Monday Morning Breeze: College ‘Chips and NFL Winter Dips

Sometimes the parallels between life and these splendid sport displays are too loud to ignore.

Yesterday, when walking around the city (Austin) I came across a couple random dudes that’d just jumped (illegally) off the main (Congress) bridge into the frigid Colorado River which bisects the downtown portion of the city. It was a random moment in a rapidly-changing town that I just happened to catch, yet it contextualized the city and the day in its own special way. Two bike-kids popping off their wheels to flee the scene of cement and soar into unknown waters far beneath, for glee. It reminded me of this weekend’s football significance, with college teams hopefully plunging into waters of uncertain depth and temperature, hoping to return to the surface as league champions and playoff participants. Similarly, the NFL action called for the consistent competition that comes with our beloved professional game; pitting healthy, hot teams against the those lurking in the coldest waters, always looking to strike despite what the record beside their nickname might say.

‘Tis the season for organizational heathens leaving pink slips on the desks of disappointing coaches country-wide, and championship pursuit pictures getting clearer with Time’s guide. Regardless of the ugly sides of this football guide, we thankfully sigh knowing entertainment lies once again on the full weekend’s tide with Saturday, Sunday, and Monday offering welcome rides to the truths turf-tussling provides.

In the college ranks, we’ve already seen the coaching turnstile spinning round and round, with massive shake-ups at schools big and small. We’ve also heavily anticipated this championship weekend, as if the weeks leading to this Saturday were conjecture-filled opening/closing arguments for who belonged in the College Football Playoffs, this weekend would provide the jury’s decision, finally offering the truest clarity of the Four-tunate teams that’d go on to compete for college football’s holiest grail.

In the NFL, games continue chugging along with each week promising the delight and defiance showcased in a league built on the ideal of parity, in loud contrast to College Football’s “Mostly Big, Old Powers Rule” system. Post Sunday-Monday-smashing we’d learn if the Seahawks or Vikings were more for real, if the Panthers could remain the NFL’s sole undefeated in New Orleans, if Philadelphia is as bad as they seem facing the Super Patriots, and more and more and more.

So here’s what happened…

COLLEGE FOOTBALL WEEK 12 PORTION OF THE PROGRAM

Championship Saturday’s here! The conjectured smoke we’ve made will finally clear. On. The. Field.

College Football Link Dinks and Dunks of the Week

The College Football Playoff is set…HEAD COACHING TURNSTILE UPDATE: Mark Richt heads to Miami, where I think he’ll dominate…Alabama’s DC Kirby Smart off to replace Richt in Georgia…Nice SI (Staples’) piece on Smart’s potential at UGA…Will Muschamp gets another HC shot at South Carolina…DJ Durkin leaving UofM(ichigan) for another UofM(aryland)…BYU’s Mendenhall off to mend Virginia…Syracuse to hire Bowling Green’s Dino BabersRutgers to hire OSU DC Chris Ash?…LSU to hire the coach they already had, Les Miles (great article)…Standout PITT RB James Conner, already out for the season w/a knee injury, diagnosed with Lymphoma

CFB Game of the Week

#4 Iowa vs. #5 MSU (B1G Championship Game)

Of all the championship games taking place Saturday, this one was the only clear-cut “win and you’re in the playoff” scenario for both teams participating. MSU, coming off a massive win over at-that-time-undefeated for 23-games Ohio State and a pummeling of Penn State, was rolling strong and appeared to be on a warpath to the Playoff. Meanwhile, Iowa’s been humming along in relative obscurity all year, except for those taking potshots at the Hawkeyes’ mediocre schedule and claiming they lack proof for being counted among the nation’s elite. For each, this game was a chance to quiet naysayers. In MSU’s case, forever playing second-fiddle to the University of Michigan in its own state (even as MSU’s been superior for years) has created a little-brother complex the Spartans seem ready to shed, and this game’s potential for granting MSU a spot in the CFP would lift any lingering question marks about their legitimacy as a national power. On the other hand, Iowa’s vanilla offense and vanilla schedule have created a mostly vanilla reception from the national audience relative to their elite status. If they could beat a mostly-proven opponent in MSU, on the Big Ten championship stage, it’d quiet almost each (but not all) negative Nancy and push them into the even brighter lights of the College Football Playoff.

LJ Use

#5 MSU 16 – #4 Iowa 13

Here’s One Play that Defined the Game, My Way:

  1. Sparty’s Longest Drive, Longest Yard, Long-Awaited Playoff Berth:

Click here to watch the play of the game.

We could talk all about the defensive slugfest this game predictably turned out to be. We could talk all about the resilience of Michigan State all year exhibited again here, the toughness of Iowa showing up on the big stage proving they belong listed among the nation’s elite, but we should only talk about one play. This play capped the one drive that mattered in this evening’s contest: Michigan State’s game-ending, 22-play, 82-yard drive that took 9 minutes and 42 seconds off the 4th-quarter clock, finishing with a battle comprised within a run that exemplified the entire game up to that point. Two teams playing disciplined, defensive, program-identity-laden football eventually being decided by this amazing gasp of human exertion by MSU’s Freshman RB LJ Scott.

For an outsider, this was the perfect play-nugget to decide and explain this B1G championship contest between two defensive-centric, heavyweight-slugging teams. This running play, given to Scott heading off the right tackle, into a swarm of Iowa defenders, appeared to have been smothered behind the coveted goal line. However, just like Michelangelo’s depiction of spiritual swine Divine and Man touching digits in the “Hand of God”, LJ Scott would not be denied a connection with his fate, with his Ultimate Understanding. Just like Man must twist and collide and pivot and spin and eventually strive to stretch past His hurdles in Life, LJ managed to do so past the Hawkeye’s defensive contingent, reaching the rock over the blessed white line into the end zone, Heaven, Enlightenment, and all that’s holy in the B1G’s championship dossier. Watch it once and you’ll probably see a hard-nosed football play. Watch it twice, perhaps your eyes can catch the human pursuit of peace and perfection, hope’s resurrection, time’s exalted collection of the homo-sapien struggle, all contained within one foray of this funny football snuggle.

At the End of the Day: CFB’s Top 25 Went this Way (Rankings via Official College Football Playoff Poll)

#4 Iowa vs. #5 MSU (B1G Championship)

Spartans strong, win with one loooong final drive and outstretched RB arm, on to the Playoff

#12 Baylor vs. Texas

Charlie makes strong, season-ending statement besting beat up Bears in Koresh’s House

#19 Houston vs. #22 Temple (AAC Championship)

Herman’s Coug’s run Owls back east, clinch ‘ship and hopeful future with new 5-year HC deal

#1 Clemson vs. #10 UNC (ACC Championship)

Tigers remain undefeated, decleating Carolina, Dabo dances finah than Fedora

#2 Alabama vs. #18 Florida (SEC Championship)

Bama whamma’s Gators gains, screams victory from Mobile plains enroute to Playoff

#7 Stanford vs. #20 USC (Pac-12 Championship)

Card’s ride McCaffery’s record-setting (all-time yardage) son, may’ve won himself the Heisman

NFL WEEK 11 PORTION OF THE PROGRAM

Teams Keep Smashing Each Other in Fast, Fun, Frightening Ways

NFL Link Dinks and Dunks of the Week

God-damned Lions lose on this crazy play to the Pack…We know JJ Watt’s good, but outperforming Buffalo’s entire D-Line good?…Great look at how the NFL’s money train keep rolling, no matter what…Rams’ WR Stedman Bailey recovering miraculously from gunshot wounds to the head…Panthers’ CB Josh Norman on how he gets his game face on…

NFL Game of the Week

Seahawks @ Vikings

Minnesota red-carpeted to this game on a roll, winning 6 of their last 8 games, leading the NFC North and riding a rejuvenated Adrian Peterson fresh off his massive suspension last year to a dominant season thus far. Meanwhile, Seattle has struggled to regain the form that saw them to the last two Super Bowls, missing out on a repeat chance due to one (very) questionable goal-line offensive play call against New England. The Seahawks had rebounded from a rough 0-2 start to the season to 2-3, and now regaining their championship form on a 2-game winning streak. Who’s momentum would continue after this meeting of two of the warmer teams in the League? Could the ‘Hawks D slow down the Peterson train (yes)? Could Minnesota contain Russell Wilson (no)?

WILSON YES

Seattle 38 – Minnesoooootaahhh 7

One Play that Defined the Game, My Way:

  1. Russell Wilson Spins the Game, Vikings, on His Fingers:

Click here to watch the play of the game.

Much has been (rightfully) made of Steph Curry’s dominance of the NBA recently, including this glowing NY Times’ piece getting the similarly glowing reviews from professional ballet dancers on Steph’s footwork and exploits. If there’s anyone in the NFL that can offer such a consistently entertaining, fleet of foot viewing experience it’s Seattle’s QB Russell Wilson. On a key 3rd down play during SEA’s first scoring drive against the Vikings, Wilson’s Curry-like ways were on full display as he rolled left and was rudely confronted by Minnesota’s DE, #99 Danielle Hunter. Wilson, in response to potentially being mauled, chose to feign a quick cut right, seemingly planning to return whence he came for greener pastures. His juke so convincing the ultra-athletic (and jacked) Hunter sought to cut Russell off at the pass, for a likely sack, glory, and end of the Seahawks’ potential TD drive. Unfortunately for Hunter, and Viking fans worldwide, Wilson was merely setting him up, like Reggie Miller getting free for another open 3 or a mark getting took by the Vegas shark that’s lurked longer, better, and quickly spun back to his left, revealing a wide-open patchwork of turf he’d quickly sprint across, gaining a valuable first down and ultimately a Seahawks touchdown. It appeared effortless, perfect balance maintained throughout, as though Wilson was Kasparov playing chess with a beginner, knowing all along the trap he needed to set for a quick victory. This is just one play, but it resembled the entire afternoon of this Seattle blowout victory, as Wilson was at his best all day, controlling the pace of the game, distributing the ball effectively, and being electric when he had to. Don’t count out the ‘Hawks just yet, thanks to Wilson’s balletic brilliance, that’s a play I won’t soon forget.

NFL Results Roundup

Packers vs. Lions (Thursday Night)

McCarthyism wins in miracle fashion, Pack smack Lions back down with shocking Hail Aaron

Texans @ Bills

Rexy’s boys finally get win machine turned on, top Texans and turn tons of pressure on Billy’s butt

Falcons @ Buccaneers

Rookie QB’s rule today, with Winston rolling once more to a win over Matt “Not Good” Ice

Jaguars @ Titans

Mr. Mariota runs looooong past Jacksonville, cast Jags in a losing suit once more

Jets @ Giants

Despite another lovely ODB Jr. long TD, Jets with the battle of New York, see?

Cardinals @ Rams

If you haven’t noticed yet, ‘Zona’s good and they pull the hood over Rams’ heads again

49ers @ Bears

Gabbert shows he’s a fast white dude, excludes Cutler from that category & the one named WIN

Bengals @ Browns

How’s that Manziel punishment going? Dalton’s smash baby Browns, make clowns of CLE frowns

Ravens @ Dolphins

Will Smith’s win over the Poe’s in the city of Southern Sin

Broncos @ Chargers

Brock bowls a nice game again, smacks Future Los Angeles Chargers hard

Chiefs @ Raiders

Reid’s steeds beat Al’s young pals, KC craters Raiders

Panthers @ Saints

Cam’s Cats stay undefeated, gut-punch hope-depleted Stains du Nu Orlosin’s

Eagles @ Patriots

Chip shows college football how much he loves NFL by bringing hell to 2-loss-in-a-row Belichicks

Colts @ Steelers

Big Ben busts Hasselbeck’s butt so bad, the Colts can’t remember Luck ever feeling so bad

Cowboys @ Washington (Monday Night Football Prediction)

(EDIT) Cousins continues climb to kiddie-Canton1Editor’s Note: We realize Drew Stanton plays in Arizona, but we tend not to bother The Breeze when he’s rolling, a la Brother Bluto, leads Terrible Name past the Collarbone’d Cowboys

Follow This to Finish Fantasy Fantasy Football Finer than Foes

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1. Editor’s Note: We realize Drew Stanton plays in Arizona, but we tend not to bother The Breeze when he’s rolling, a la Brother Bluto

Big Ten Championship Game Preview – Part II

Picking where it left yesterday, Part II looks at some other – very even – aspects of the Big Ten title game match-up between Michigan State and Iowa. There may even be a prediction of the game’s outcome as well.

Offensive Line

These are two of the best offensive lines in the conference if not the country. Both have had more than their share of injuries but have been able to persevere – Iowa was better running the ball (third in the conference with just over 200 yards per game to eighth at 158), but some of that had to do with the better and more experienced backs Iowa finally had this season. In pass protection, the Spartans were slightly better, allowing just 15 sacks to Iowa’s 20; some of that had to do with Iowa’s strength being on the interior in center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. Iowa had been on their fourth string tackles at one point and even those guys were replacing underclassmen first-year starters. Spartan center Jack Allen was first team All-Big Ten – no slouch, obviously – while left tackle Jack Conklin might have been the best lineman in the league if not for injuries. Each team also features excellent blocking tight ends which have all been used by their teams in that manner this season.

Advantage: Even

Running Game

Iowa finally, and emphatically, confounded the AIRBHG this season and was able to throw a three-headed monster at opposing defenses for most of the conference schedule. Jordan Canzeri, the most trusted and versatile of the bunch, finished with just under 1,000 yards while Akrum Wadley (lean and fast, in general) and LeShaun Daniels (bruiser, in general) combined for 1,041. With their aforementioned line, the Spartans will be challenged. Michigan State used something of a three-headed monster as well, but their trio of Gerald Holmes, a sophomore, and freshmen L.J. Scott and Madre London, took time to develop – they’ll be better next season than they are right now and have been. The team rushing numbers mentioned above show the edge that Iowa’s rushing attack has had through the season, but it’ll be a tough slog against this Spartans’ rush defense. For each head coach, stopping the run is always a primary concern on defense.

Advantage: Iowa

Special Teams

Each teams’ special teams are solid, but not spectacular other than Iowa’s having King as the primary returner for both punts and kickoffs – something of a curiosity given Ferentz’s almost maniacal conservatism, at least in the punting game. Iowa has had over half of its kickoffs result in touchbacks where Michigan State does it about a quarter of the time, but their coverage units are roughly on par. Both kickers have made clutch kicks under pressure – Michael Geiger against Ohio State and Marshall Koehn against Pitt – and both are college-game adequate in field goal percentage (neither has attempted more than 17 of them; Geiger is at 65% with Koehn at 75%). Although Iowa attempted some fakes earlier in the season (most un-Ferentz-like), Dantonio has never been afraid of special teams trickery in big games. Given how closely these teams match up, something like “Little Giants” may well be christened in this game – indeed, even if it wasn’t based on any deception, it was a famous (or notorious) special teams play that got the Spartans by Michigan this season.

Advantage: Even

Discipline

Both Iowa and Michigan State (surprise!) are tied for third nationally with a masterful +14 turnover margin. They both take care of the ball and get their opponents to give it up regularly. Penalties tell almost the same story, with each team tickling the national top twenty at 5.1 per game; Iowa has more of the serious variety inasmuch as they average almost a first down’s worth of yards on a per game basis (49.0 to 40.6). Dantonio definitely has a reputation among Iowa fans as someone who encourages his players to push the envelope, but the numbers just don’t bear that out, at least for this season’s group of players.

Advantage: Even

Intangibles

This is a conference championship game with even more on the line for each team – win the league title and you’re a virtual lock for the Playoff with, consequently, a shot to play for a national title. Motivation won’t be an issue for either team obviously, and both fan bases will travel, as they famously do, to this neutral site game. If there is any advantage here, it’s that Michigan State, under Dantonio and Connor Cook in particular, has been here on the big stage before. That doesn’t extend to just the Big Ten title game, in which the Spartans have a 1-1 record, losing to Wisconsin in 2011 and beating Ohio State in 2013, but to big games in general. The Spartans beat undefeated Ohio State two weeks ago and Oregon in Week 2 and have won their last two bowl games, last year’s Cotton against Baylor and 2013’s Rose against Stanford, both of which were BCS or New Year’s Six level. Most would consider the Spartans an elite team now whereas all this is pretty new to Iowa, whose last two BCS bowls were the Orange in 2009 (win over Georgia Tech) and the Orange in 2002 (blown out by USC). Iowa has the edge in the all-time series, 23-20-2, and fans of each remember their games in 2010, 2009, 2007, 1985, and 1984. Not much of that ancient history will matter on Saturday, however.

Advantage: Michigan State, but not by much

 It is clear that these two team are quite evenly matched, even though Michigan State has a higher profile nationally. This game will be close, and not all boring, through the first half, but a key turnover or special teams play in third quarter will give Michigan State a lead that they’ll never relinquish despite a strong challenge from the Hawkeyes:

Michigan State 27 Iowa 24

Big Ten Championship Game Preview – Part I

The Big Ten conference championship game this weekend in Indianapolis pits two teams that virtually no one in August picked to be here. Undefeated West Division champ Iowa is presently fourth in the College Football Playoff ranking; East Division champ Michigan State, whose only loss was a controversial 39-38 disappointment at Nebraska, is fifth – the winner will almost certainly have a shot at the national title, most likely against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Are the Hawkeyes bona fide, even though they still haven’t lost a game in 2015? Will this be “just another big game” win for the Spartans, who have won six of their last seven against teams ranked in the top 5 or better?

Using a format lifted from analyst and handicapping legend Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder from his CBS NFL Today days, let’s have a closer look. Part I goes through some aspects of each team, including speed, quarterbacks, and defense. Part II will complete the analysis and (actually) offer a prediction

Team Speed

Most would buy into the perception that Michigan State, now recruiting on strength of head coach Mark Dantonio’s leadership of the team to five 10-plus win seasons in the last six, has better athletes and consequently better overall team speed. Indeed, since 2010, Dantonio has recruited in the conference’s upper tier, including, for 2016, a consensus national top 15 class. Ok, those kids aren’t there yet, but there’s plenty of fast players up and down the roster, including standout wide receivers Aaron Burbridge and McGarrett Kings. However, the fastest and most athletic player on the field is Iowa cornerback Desmond King, who is also second in the league in both punt return average and kickoff return average. The rest of team isn’t exactly slow either.

Advantage: Michigan State, but not by much

Quarterbacks

Each team will bring a top notch quarterback – in both ability and leadership. Connor Cook was just named the Griese-Breese Big Ten Quarterback of the Year however, his consensus selection as the first team All-Big Ten was not unanimous. One suspects that Iowa’s C.J. Beathard may have gotten some of those votes. Cook is likely to be a first round draft pick next spring while Beathard has another year left for the Hawkeyes. League followers will recall the odd press conference in January when head coach Kirk Ferentz named Beathard the team’s starter on the heels of a disappointing end to 2014, including a listless whipping at the hands of Tennessee in the Tax Slayer Bowl. That led to incumbent Jake Rudock’s (eventually very successful) transfer to Michigan and Beathard leading the Hawkeyes to this historically high point. In a way that it seems Rudock could never have done, Beathard’s been the straw that’s stirred the drink all season long for the Iowa offense – which has averaged 33.7 points per game. These included a stretch during which Iowa scored 30 or more points in five straight games for the first time in something like 50 years.

Advantage: Even

Defensive Secondary

In total pass defense, Iowa and Michigan State are eighth (221.7 ypg) and ninth (231.0 ypg) in the league, respectively. They are tops in the league with 17 (Iowa) and 14 interceptions, respectively, and have given up 14 and 17 touchdowns, respectively. For Iowa, the numbers are startling in light of the fact that the aforementioned King led the nation in interceptions with 8 (which tied the program record for a season – with the legendary Nile Kinnick and a gentleman named Lou King) and was recently named the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. His backfield mates cornerback Greg Mabin, and safeties Miles Taylor and Jordan Lomax are solid, but certainly not on King’s level. Michigan State’s middling numbers are startling in light of the No Fly Zone they imposed on opponents in 2013 and 2014 – one can suppose the huge totals the unit gave up last year against Oregon, Ohio State, and Baylor were a sign that a drop off was coming. Neither unit is bad, but neither is exceptional either, except of course for game-breaker King (who’s from Detroit, incidentally). The Spartans have no counterpart to him on the back end, but King will have his hands full with Richter-Howard Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Burbridge.

Advantage: Iowa, but not by much

Defensive Front

The Spartans’ defensive front, especially their linemen, led by standout end Shilique Calhoun and phenom Malik McDowell, is one of the elite units nationally. Not unlike his older brother Max, Riley Bullough is an excellent middle linebacker in Dantonio’s scheme. Overall, Michigan State’s defense wasn’t as dominant as it has been in recent times, but 21.1 points per game and 118 yards per game rushing are still both quite respectable. As for Iowa, their front’s been without its best player Drew Ott for most of the conference schedule. Linemen Jaleel Johnson, Nate Meier, and redshirt freshman Parker Hesse have picked up the slack nicely. Linebacker Josey Jewell is an all-league player in the middle. For its part, Iowa’s defense has similarly given up just 18.7 points per game and even fewer yards per game on the ground at 110. The Spartans have gotten 32 sacks on the season to Iowa’s 27, but 7 of State’s came in their opener against Western Michigan. The bottom line is that both defensive fronts are very stout – the difference may be pro-level pass rushers like Calhoun and McDowell, especially if they’re allowed good looks at Beathard off the edge.

Advantage: Michigan State, but not by much

The teams, on paper at least, are very evenly matched so far. Will one separate itself in Part II and eventually on Saturday, when it’s not just a lot of words?

Wisconsin: Rough Night or Second Tier?

Well, let’s be honest; unless you are an Ohio State fan, Saturday night was some tough football to watch. The Buckeyes 59-0 trouncing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game seemed to answer some questions as it pertains to the College Football Playoffs – while creating even more toward the CFP committee – but it also left those within the UW football program and its supporters with some very difficult questions to answer.

Wisconsin Badgers flag

Question #1: Was Saturday night just a singular bad dream, or part of a growing disparity between the Badgers and Buckeyes?

As frustrating as the game in Indianapolis was, let’s keep in mind that this was Wisconsin’s first loss by more than ten points since 2009 (31-13 at OSU), a span that includes one win and three losses against the Buckeyes. Those losses are by a combined 18 points, with one being in overtime. The Badgers have been one of the more competitive teams against Ohio State in recent memory, leaving us to surmise the most recent matchup was just an off night. And let’s be honest, having a bad game and laying an egg on the big stage is a part of sports. They are unfortunate and there is no way to see them coming. If you are familiar with the “snowball” or “quicksand” theories, then you know that once the game seems to be getting one sided it is nearly impossible to – or at least very difficult to – turn those fortunes around. All that being said, it’s hard to ignore some of the glaring gaps between the two programs. Back to the head-to-head, the Buckeyes have now won seven of the last eight meetings. Plus, the Badgers owe a portion of their 2012 B1G title to Ohio State, as their appearance in the championship game with a 4-4 record came only because undefeated OSU and 6-2 Penn State were still under NCAA postseason sanctions.

Question #2: Is a playmaking quarterback the biggest separation when comparing Wisconsin and Ohio State?

Ohio State seemed to have an advantage at nearly every position on the field inside Lucas Oil Stadium. They owned the line of scrimmage, thus keeping Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon in check (though by no means am I saying that Ezekiel Elliot is a better back than Gordon, he just outperformed him based on total team domination), and they were quicker and faster at every spot on the perimeter. All that said, the most disturbing gap is at the quarterback position. The facts: Ohio State went through three quarterbacks this season and never really missed a beat, whereas Wisconsin never quiet knew what it had or which direction it truly wanted to go with Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. The Badgers have never been known for having tremendous quarterback play, aside from getting Russell Wilson for the 2011-12 season in what will be remembered as the greatest free agent signing in college football history. The trio of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, and Cardale Jones all seemed to possess the necessary physical and mental traits to be the most significant player on the field. Maybe that’s a testament to Urban Meyer, who is known for his work with quarterbacks. Meanwhile in Madison, recruiting and coaching decisions left this year’s squad with a mess behind center. It will likely be even murkier next season, with both Stave and McEvoy back, plus dual threat QB’s DJ Gillens coming off a redshirt and Austin Kafentzis enrolling after a record-setting prep career in Utah. There are no guarantees, especially in football and even more so with quarterbacks, but Wisconsin will never truly be a national title contender without a steady run of quality quarterback play alongside the program bedrocks of physical line play and tremendous running backs.

Question #3: Can Gary Andersen ever really match his former colleague, Urban Meyer?

Gary Andersen certainly has a vision for what he wants the UW program to be, and the fruits of that effort are beginning to take shape. Without losing the foundations of Wisconsin football, the second-year coach is eyeing more speed at quarterback and receiver, as well as throughout the defense. That speedier defense made tremendous strides during the season, reaching #1 in the nation for a few weeks, yet in a bit of irony, was pushed around by OSU the way bigger UW teams of the past used to. And the receiving corps made strides over the past two months, but were significantly up-staged by Devin Smith’s ball skills down field. The honest truth is, from a recruiting standpoint, Wisconsin will never be the draw Ohio State is and Andersen will never have the cache that Meyer has. Andersen and the Badgers will have their work cut out for them if they want to jump from a very good Big Ten team and become a top tier national program.

Question #4: Is there a silver lining from Saturday’s result?

There is, and it’s one that brings us right back to placing the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game in the category of just one rough night. EVEN VEGAS GOT IT WRONG! Let’s remember that coming into game number 13 of the season the Badgers were FAVORED to win the game by three points. That betting line was set forth regardless of where the Badgers and Buckeyes ranked nationally prior to kickoff, and regardless of records. In a rare moment of haziness for Vegas odds makers, and we can officially reclassify this game as one of the most surprising UPSETS in college football. Also, let’s not forget that this UW team did fulfill expectations of winning the Big Ten West and contending for the league crown.

Wisconsin: Third Down And Gophers To Go

It had been five weeks since the Wisconsin Badgers found themselves in a football game in the fourth quarter. At Iowa on Saturday, UW led 19-3 in the third quarter and seemed on their way to another relatively easy, though more physical, Big Ten win. That wasn’t the case, as the Hawkeyes scored 21 points over the final 18 minutes to make Wisconsin sweat and really work for their sixth straight league win. It was a win that showed the Badgers have the right type of playmakers for when the going gets tough, which it likely will this coming Saturday when Minnesota comes to Camp Randall Stadium for a Big Ten West, winner-take-all showdown.

The Badgers already knew they have a playmaker in Melvin Gordon; that part is obvious when it comes to the Heisman Trophy candidate. What came as more of a surprise in Iowa City, was the emergence of the UW quarterbacks as playmakers. Tanner McEvoy saw limited snaps, but was able to make the game’s first big play scoring on a 45-yard run. The rest was left in the hands of Joel Stave, who came through in the most clutch situations.

Stave and AndersenThis was especially visible on third downs, for which the Badgers converted on seven of 13. After failing to score on third-and-goal after Gordon ripped off an 88-yard run to the Iowa 4 yard line, the Badgers converted on three of their next four third downs. All involved Stave, and all came when Wisconsin absolutely needed a play to further a scoring drive or to run out the clock.

Stave twice completed passes for first downs, both times with the Hawkeyes defense bearing down on him with blitzes. He completed the night by making the most unlikely of conversions, rushing for 12 yards and diving for a first down that ultimately allowed UW to run out the clock and get out of town with the win.

While the game will mostly be remembered for Gordon’s gut-check performance that yielded 271 total yards of offense and two scores, what can’t be forgotten is the clutch playmaking in the second half. An even bigger test and challenge awaits in the regular season finale against the Golden Gophers. The two rivals rank fifth (Minnesota) and sixth (Wisconsin) in third down conversation percentage in the Big Ten.  Whichever team’s playmakers step up most consistently with the game, or a drive, on the line will have the upper hand.

Badger Bites: The biggest question heading into Saturday’s 124th meeting between Wisconsin and Minnesota will be the health of Gophers running back David Cobb, who injured his hamstring prior to UM’s fourth quarter rally at Nebraska. Cobb, the Big Ten’s third leading rusher, is a major weapon Minnesota’s offense needs against the Badgers league-leading defense. That unit was exposed by the Iowa passing attack, something Jerry Kill’s squad severely lacks. The Badgers have owned this rivalry for the past decade, and it will take a near perfect effort by the Golden Gophers to end that trend. Prediction: Wisconsin 30, Minnesota 14

Michigan State Wins Division, but Penn State Win Poses Challenges

On Saturday, the #15 Michigan State Spartans crushed the Indiana Hoosiers 55-3 while across the state, in-state rival, the #18 Michigan Wolverines upset the #16 Nebraska Cornhuskers, 45-17. With the Michigan victory, this gave Sparty the green light to advance as the Legends Division winner since they previously beat Michigan 28-14 in October.

Congratulations Michigan State. This makes one division complete and ready for the Dec. 3 Big Ten Championship Game. Continue reading Michigan State Wins Division, but Penn State Win Poses Challenges