Thursday, November 29, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten title game
By Adam Rittenberg
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a big one: Wisconsin vs. Nebraska in the Big Ten championship.
Here are four things to watch Saturday night at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium:
Wisconsin's Montee Ball has rushed for five touchdowns over his past three games.
1. Ball and Burkhead: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead occupied the top two spots on our preseason countdown of the Big Ten's top players. Many considered Ball the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, while Burkhead also was in the mix. The season hasn't gone as expected for either back, as Ball suffered a concussion and ran behind an inconsistent line, while Burkhead suffered a knee injury in the opener, twice aggravated it in October and played only one full contest (against Wisconsin on Sept. 29). Both men will be on the big stage at Lucas Oil. Burkhead returned to action last week against Iowa and turned in a strong second half, and Ball has been surging as of late, having racked up 500 yards and five touchdowns over his past three games.
2. Down to the wire: Both Nebraska and Wisconsin are accustomed to close games this season, although the squads have had very different results. Wisconsin's five losses have come by a total of 19 points, including a 30-27 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln that marked the first of several furious Husker comebacks this season. Three of the Badgers' defeats have come in overtime (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin). Nebraska is 5-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer this season, with all five victories coming in Big Ten play. The Huskers have rallied from a double-digit deficit four times in the second half this season -- tied for the second highest total in the FBS since 1996. "You look at Wisconsin, and they could just as easily be 10-2, just like we are," Nebraska tight end Ben Cotton told ESPN.com. "We know how good of a football team they are."
3. Back home again in Indiana: Aside from hosting the league title game at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin wouldn't want to play anywhere besides the Hoosier State this week. Wisconsin is 8-0 under coach Bret Bielema on Indiana soil, including last year's dramatic win against Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The Badgers actually have won nine straight in the state, and their eight wins under Bielema have come by an average margin of 23.8 points. Wisconsin played its two best games on Indiana soil this season, thrashing Purdue and Indiana by a combined score of 100-28 and racking up a combined 1,031 rush yards and 11 touchdowns. Nebraska obviously poses a much tougher test than Purdue or Indiana did.
4. Huskers' men in the middle: Baseball managers always talk about being strong up the middle, and the adage applies to football, too. Nebraska faces some challenges Saturday after losing starting center Justin Jackson and starting defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler to injury. Both Jackson and Steinkuhler have started all 12 games for the Huskers this season. Cole Pensick and Mark Pelini shared reps this week in practice at the center spot, and Nebraska will use a group effort to fill the void at defensive tackle, including moving ends like senior Cameron Meredith inside. Sophomore Chase Rome replaced Steinkuhler last week against Iowa, and Thad Randle also should see a lot of time in the interior line. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin can exploit the injury with its run game.