Big Ten: 2011-Big-Ten-Champ


INDIANAPOLIS -- The first Big Ten championship game was an exciting, memorable event. Especially for Wisconsin fans.

Despite getting outgained and often outplayed by Michigan State, the Badgers pulled out a 42-39 win to avenge an earlier loss this season and clinch a bid to the Rose Bowl for the second straight season.

Two key plays made the difference.

The Badgers faced a fourth and seven with 4:44 left, and quarterback Russell Wilson was under heavy pressure when he chucked it downfield to a well-covered Jeff Duckworth, just hoping something good would happen. It did, in the form of a 36-yard completion that might have been karmic payback for the Hail Mary on Oct. 22.

Montee Ball would go in for the touchdown -- his 38th on the year, one behind Barry Sanders' record -- and Wisconsin converted the two-point play as Wilson again scrambled before finding Jacob Pedersen in the end zone for an improbable 42-39 lead.

Michigan State went three and out and punted, then forced a Wisconsin punt with fewer than two minutes to go. But Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into the punter, giving the Badgers a first down and effectively ending the game in heartbreaking fashion for the Spartans, whose Rose Bowl drought will now head into its 25th year.

Much, much more to come on this crazy game after postgame interviews ...
INDIANAPOLIS -- Quick halftime analysis from a wildly entertaining first 30 minutes at the inaugural Big Ten championship game:

Turning point: On the first play of the second quarter, Michigan State went for it on fourth down and 1 from the Wisconsin 30. Quarterback Kirk Cousins faked a pitch and rolled out, finding a wide-open B.J. Cunningham for a touchdown to make it 21-14. That was the start of 22 consecutive points for the Spartans, who also outscored the Badgers 23-0 in the second quarter of their Oct. 22 win.

Stat of the half: Wisconsin had 165 total yards and three touchdowns after its first three drives in the first quarter. The rest of the way, the Badgers had minus-4 yards and no first downs as Michigan State made excellent defensive adjustments and got pressure on quarterback Russell Wilson. In fact, Wilson has more receiving yards in the half (32, on a trick play) than he does passing yards (30).

Best player in the half: While Wilson got far more attention this year, Cousins outplayed him in the first meeting this season and is doing so again. The senior quarterback is 15-of-17 for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the half, though he did throw an interception. Le'Veon Bell (10 rushes for 84 yards) and Keshawn Martin (103 total yards) have give the Spartans a big lift as well.

What Wisconsin needs to do: Re-establish the running game. Montee Ball had 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter. He had only three carries for 2 yards in the second quarter. Everything Wisconsin does is based on the running game, and without it, the Badgers don't have much chance. Oh, and tackling better would be nice, too.

What Michigan State needs to do: Keep the pedal down. The Spartans' offenses stalled in the second half of the first meeting this season, allowing Wisconsin to get back in it. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar is calling an excellent game and he needs to remember to stick to an effective running game. On defense, keep pressuring Wilson, who is clearly affected by the pass rush so far.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Notes and nuggets from Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's news conference on the eve of the inaugural Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium:

  • Center Peter Konz was expected to try and practice in an effort to play against Michigan State. Konz has missed the past two games after injuring his ankle against Minnesota. But Bielema sounds as if he might stick with Travis Frederick -- who started at center last week against Penn State after taking over for Ryan Groy -- even if Konz is able to play. "We're kind of at the point where, do we want to play Pete, who hasn't been repping?" he said. "Or do we want Ryan and Travis, who have done an outstanding job the last two weeks? I think we'd favor that more than somebody who hasn't been in there."
  • Bielema laughed when asked where his offense and the team would be if Russell Wilson hadn't transferred from NC State to play quarterback. The projected starter in the spring, Jon Budmayr, had to have surgery on a nerve in his throwing elbow in fall camp, leaving the Badgers with a redshirt freshman and a true freshman on the depth chart behind Wilson. "We were in a very bad situation at quarterback, and then Russell appeared," Bielema said. There have been rumors of another transfer quarterback entering the program next year, and Bielema said he's heard from about 10 players interested in transferring to the Badgers because of Wilson's success. "That's not really out of the norm," he said. "It's just been brought to light because of Russell. We usually have about four or five inquiries."
  • Wisconsin has lost three of the past four to Michigan State, including the past two. The Badgers have made a lot of mistakes in the past two meetings. Bielema said the team wasn't necessarily motivated by revenge. "The frustration isn't with Michigan State," he said. "The frustration is in not being able to capitalize on the things we normally do. They've won three out of four, and all of them were in East Lansing. We're glad this one's here. ... We hope the momentum is about ready to swing."
  • Bielema talked with Wisconsin product and former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi this week for tips about playing in Lucas Oil Stadium. He has also visited Indianapolis in the past for Big Ten basketball tournaments. Bielema said he likes the Pac-12's idea of having the top-ranked team host the league championship game, but he also is glad the game will be indoors. "I would much rather have the game be decided because of two teams on the field in a neutral site and a great environment for fans than put together a game plan that could be heavily affected by weather," he said. Bielema said his fiancee is also happy because "she didn't have to worry about her dress."
  • Bielema is well aware of running back Montee Ball's chase for the single-season touchdown record. Ball has 34, five shy of Barry Sanders' mark with two games to play. Bielema said the team took pride in making sure Ball broke the Big Ten record a few weeks ago, but the Badgers will not try to engineer the record by setting Ball up for easy touchdowns. As for what he's talked about with Ball, Bielema said, "I keep trying to tell him how much better he'd be next year if he comes back."
  • Wisconsin hasn't practiced defending a Hail Mary pass any more than usual, but Bielema said they have changed some things from a pass rush standpoint should a similar situation to Oct. 22's wild finish arise on Saturday.
  • The Badgers were favored to win the Big Ten this season and were considered a national title contender. So would a loss on Saturday make this season a disappointment? Bielema said he understands how expectations continually increase but added, "I'd hate to have a 10-win season and not be considered successful," Bielema said.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his pregame news conference Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here are some notes and nuggets:
  • Cornerback Darqueze Dennard will return to the starting lineup after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. Dantonio said Dennard practiced all week and is full-go. Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett would be the next man in at cornerback. Safety Kurtis Dummond (head) also will play and split time at nickel safety with Jairus Jones.
  • Dantonio had roses placed at each player's locker this week to remind them of what's at stake Saturday night: the program's first trip to the Rose Bowl in 24 seasons. "We've got Rose Bowl things up around our facility," Dantonio said. "[Assistant coach Mark Staten] was out there recruiting in the summer and brought back a bunch of rocks from the Rose Bowl. So we gave everybody a little rock. We'll do whatever it takes to keep that focus in front of them."
  • Dantonio had high praise for sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis, who is tied with fellow Spartans safety Trenton Robinson for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. Lewis is an Indianapolis native. "Isaiah Lewis is, to me, one of those guys who can take over a football game and be an impact player," Dantonio said. "... He's one of our finest football players as a sophomore, and he has great things in store for him as a player in this league, and has a future beyond this league. He tackles, great ball skills, big-play ability. He will make some big plays out there tomorrow night."
  • Although Michigan State will be the home team Saturday night, Dantonio had the team prepare for a normal road game this week. The routine didn't change, and Dantonio reiterated a point he has made about stress vs. pressure. "Pressure is good," he said. "You can succeed with pressure. It makes you have greater attention to detail. You're more focused. Stress is not. Stress is the enemy. We don't want to stress out about this."
  • One oddity of Michigan State's season is that the Spartans won the Legends division despite having the Big Ten's worst rushing offense (139 ypg). Dantonio stressed the need to be balanced against Wisconsin and get top backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker in space. "We've got to have explosive plays," he said. "When we get eight-plus explosive plays, we're 37-5 as a program."
  • Dantonio talked this week with Spartans men's basketball coach Tom Izzo, whose team played at Lucas Oil Stadium in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Izzo also talked to Dantonio about facing the same team multiple times in a season.
  • Dantonio talked about how Michigan State is changing its regional and national perception, pointing to the team's 14-2 mark in Big Ten play and its 24 Big Ten wins in the past four seasons -- the most in the league (Ohio State vacated its seven wins from 2010). Despite these numbers, the Spartans are once again underdogs heading into the title game. "We've been underdogs in six games this year, five or six, whatever it is," he said. "We're sort of unfazed by it. I tell our players, 'Don't worry about what the so-called experts say. The experts are in that locker room, and they're the coaches. We're the people who study that football field. We're the people who have to go out and play in it, live it. And in Wisconsin's locker room, they're the experts.'"
  • Dantonio on Wisconsin: "The respect is there for the University of Wisconsin and how they play. We recognize they're a very big challenge for us. They’re always going to be up there. They've got a great program, they’ve risen up the ranks and I think both of our football teams are going to be on top for a while."

Video: Big Ten title game preview

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
5:00
PM ET


Kirk Herbstreit previews the Big Ten Championship between No. 15 Wisconsin and No. 13 Michigan State.

Video: Analyzing Michigan State

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
4:30
PM ET

Adam Rittenberg analyzes Michigan State from Lucas Oil Stadium as the Spartans prepare for Saturday's Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.

Badgers-Spartans retro diary: Vol. II

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
1:00
PM ET
To get you ready for Saturday's Big Ten championship game between Wisconsin and Michigan State, I've gone back and watched the classic Oct. 22 game, won by the Spartans 37-31. This is my retro diary of that experience. If you missed Vol. I, which covers the first half of the game, click here. We'll pick up things now with the second half. (You can follow along through the magic of ESPN3.com here; however, after repeated attempts I can tell you the replay does not match up in any way with Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon.")

Third quarter

  • 14:45: Wisconsin defensive back Dezmen Southward leaves the game with an injury, pushing freshman Peniel Jean into the game for the second half. Not like the Badgers will need extra defensive backs at any point later on ...
  • 11:58: Michigan State is forced to punt after pressure from Mike Taylor pressures Kirk Cousins into an incompletion. Good start for the Badgers' defense.
  • 10:28: Russell Wilson completes his third straight pass, the last one to Montee Ball for 22 yards to the Michigan State 19. It's Ball's first touch since he went out in the second quarter with concussion signs. Wilson hit two straight big passes on play-action. There's not a more dangerous play-action team in the country than the Badgers, which sometimes makes you wonder why they don't use that on every passing down.
  • 9:56: Oh, here's why. The Spartans stuff the play-action for a 1-yard loss as Johnny Adams comes on a corner blitz. Does any team in America use the corner blitz more than Michigan State does with Adams?
  • [+] EnlargeRussell Wilson and Marcus Rush
    Andrew Weber/US PresswireMarcus Rush forces Russell Wilson out of the pocket, leading to a rare misfire by Wilson.

  • 8:40: Big miss here for the Badgers, as Wilson -- after being flushed out to his left by Marcus Rush -- misses a wide-open Jacob Pedersen for what would have been an easy touchdown. Wilson floated his pass over Pedersen in one of his rare bad throws. But pressure will make even the best quarterbacks to fall out of sync.
  • 8:31: Wisconsin settles for a 33-yard field goal to make it 23-17, Michigan State. Wisconsin scored touchdowns on 56 of 65 red-zone trips this year but had to try field goals on its past two forays inside the Spartans' 20.
  • 6:13: Wisconsin forces a Michigan State three-and-out, thanks in large part to a Chris Borland sack.
  • 4:58: Wilson hits Jared Abbrederis for a 20-yard gain off, of course, play-action. Michigan State's Jerel Worthy cramps up and has to leave for the rest of the series. Other than a first-half tackle for loss, Worthy has been quieted by Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz. But Konz is not expected to play this week.
  • 4:42: Another missed touchdown opportunity from the Spartans' 39. On yet another play-action, Wilson runs to his right, pivots and throws back across the field to Ball, who was well covered. He missed Pedersen, who was running wide open about 10 yards to Ball's right. How'd Pedersen get so open? He actually falls down near the line of scrimmage after sliding off his block, and everybody forgets about him -- maybe even Wilson. Credit Max Bullough for getting in Wilson's face and making him throw it more quickly than he wanted.
  • 3:54 On third-and-7, Wilson scrambles to his left, with Johnathan Strayhorn in hot pursuit. Wilson might have an angle to get to the first-down marker, but he drops the football and has to jump on it for a 1-yard loss. In one of my football pet peeves, Wisconsin punts from the 37 and it results in a touchback, a net gain of only 17 yards.
  • 0:55: Le'Veon Bell runs through hard-hitting linebacker Mike Taylor to pick up a first down. Bell really asserts himself in the second half of this game, and the sophomore would become the Spartans' main back for the rest of the season.
  • :00: Third quarter ends. Wisconsin has outplayed Michigan State most of the quarter but only has three points to show for it. And the Spartans are driving.
Fourth quarter

  • 11:05: Huge play here, as Michigan State faces third-and-11 from the Wisconsin 15. Cousins hits Keshawn Martin well in front of the sticks, but Martin uses his speed to race right past Borland. No other Badgers defender can cut him off, and Martin takes it to the end zone. Mark Dantonio wisely goes for two, and Cousins throws a fade to B.J. Cunningham, who makes a great adjustment and catch to beat Marcus Cromartie. It's now 31-17 Michigan State. After falling behind 14-0, the Spartans have outscored Wisconsin 31-3. This touchdown drive took 7:34 off the clock, and Cousins has been razor sharp on the night to this point, completing 16-of-19 passes for 202 yards.
  • 10:03: Another blown opportunity for the Badgers. They line up in the I-formation and get single coverage on the outside. Abbrederis shakes Darqueze Dennard at the line of scrimmage and has him beat deep. Wilson delivers the strike down the field -- but the normally sure-handed Abbrederis just plain drops it. How many touchdowns can Wisconsin give away?
  • 9:54: Wisconsin punts after Denicos Allen pressures Wilson into an incompletion.
  • 8:56: Michigan State goes three-and-out again, curiously choosing to pass twice instead of bleeding clock with the run game. The Spartans use only a minute on the clock, even though the best defense against Wisconsin's offense is to keep it off the field.
  • 8:40: Abbrederis, making up for his drop, returns the punt 33 yards to the Michigan State 43. Abbrederis leads the nation this season in punt return average, at 16.4 yards per attempt.
  • 8:10: Moments after Ball's first big run of the second half, Wilson scrambles for a 22-yard touchdown to make it 31-24 Michigan State. Isaiah Lewis had a bead on Wilson, but Wilson pump faked a pass and Lewis -- who made comments about hurting Wilson the week before -- jumped in the air. Ball missed two big blocks in the first half, but this time he picks up Allen on the blitz to spring the play. The Badgers could have easily scored touchdowns on each of their first four second-half drives; instead, they have managed 10 points.
  • 7:09: Michigan State goes three and out for the third time in four drives and again throws two incompletions, using up barely a minute on the clock. Momentum has shifted back toward Bucky Badger.
  • [+] EnlargeKeith Nichol
    Andrew Weber/US PresswirePerhaps the play of the year in college football: Keith Nichol scores the game-winning TD on a Hail Mary pass.

  • 6:54: The worst moment arrives for Russellmania. Wilson is pressured again, rolls to his right and then heaves a pass all the way back to the left sideline for Pedersen. But Bullough has decent coverage on Pedersen, and the ball sails. Lewis finally makes an impact, racing over to catch the ball and tiptoe the sideline for a big interception.
  • 5:13: But Michigan State can't capitalize as it goes three and out once again. On third down, the Spartans appear to call the same play that led to the first-half touchdown pass to Cunningham on a fourth down. Only this time, the Wisconsin linebackers spot Cunningham, and Ethan Hemer gets penetration to sack Cousins.
  • 3:57: After taking over at their own 13, the Badgers get back-to-back first-down runs from Ball. Most teams would panic and throw the ball down seven with under four minutes left, but Paul Chryst has enough confidence in his running game to call four straight runs to start this drive.
  • 2:39: On third-and-9, Wilson dances in the pocket to avoid the rush, keeps his eyes downfield and hits fullback Bradie Ewing for 15 yards to extend the drive.
  • 1:39: More brilliance from Wilson. Michigan State gets pressure again, but Wilson spins around and runs backward to create some room. Downfield, Nick Toon breaks off his route and sprints to the sideline, and Wilson finds him for a 42-yard gain. Toon, coming back from an injury, has only two catches in this game. I expect him to be a bigger factor in Round 2.
  • 1:26: Wilson, flushed out again, starts to run but then dumps it to Ball for a 2-yard touchdown to make it 31-31. Wilson was 4-for-4 on the drive, and if Wisconsin were to win in overtime, he just had his Heisman moment.
  • 1:06: On third-and-7 from the Michigan State 25, Cousins hits Bell across the middle for the first down. Large.
  • 0:42: Unsung hero alert! Cousins scrambles and fumbles on a hit by Brendan Kelly. Offensive lineman Joel Foreman falls on the ball, but the pigskin squirts away. In a huge heads-up play, tackle Dan France pounces on it. Both Borland and Taylor had a chance but can't come up with the ball. Had Wisconsin recovered, it would have taken over at the 24-yard line with all three timeouts. The Badgers almost surely win the game then. Still, it's second-and-21 now, and Bret Bielema calls timeout as he starts to think about getting the ball back. Worthy screams at the offense on the sidelines. I'd like to tell you what he said, but this is a family-friendly blog.
  • 0:30: Cunningham makes an 8-yard grab, and Bielema calls his second timeout. Michigan State was jogging back to the line of scrimmage, and it seemed clear that the Spartans were going to let the clock run down. I understand the first timeout, but I think this one was a bad idea, especially with the momentum Wisconsin would have taken into overtime. During the break, Brent Musberger says, "this could be the first of two" between these teams. Good call.
  • 0:24: The Spartans pick up the first down on an inside shovel pass to Martin. Wisconsin has to know where Martin is on that situation. Also, it sure looked like France jumped offside before the snap, but perhaps karma rewarded him for the fumble recovery. Michigan State did not get called for a single penalty in the game.
  • 0:09: Cousins finds Bell over the middle again to the Badgers' 44. The Spartans need about 10 more yards to get in field-goal range.
  • 0:04: Cousins rolls out and throws to tight end Brian Linthicum, but the pass is a little high and bounces off Linthicum's hands. Aaron Henry had good coverage. A completion there would have set up a field-goal try, but now Michigan State has no choice but to throw it to the end zone. Bielema calls his third timeout to set up the defense, and Dantonio changes the play he had called
  • 0:00: "Rocket" time. Here's an excellent breakdown of all that went wrong and yet right for Michigan State on the play of the year in college football. Keith Nichol is ruled down inside the 1 on the field. But after a replay takes 2:12 of real time, the officials overturn the call. Touchdown, 37-31 Spartans. What a game. Can't wait for the rematch.

Did you know? Big Ten title game

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
11:00
AM ET
Some notes and nuggets to get you ready for the inaugural Big Ten championship game Saturday night between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin.

Thanks to the folks at ESPN Stats & Information for most of these:
  • Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins completed all nine of his pass attempts when facing three or fewer pass-rushers on a play in Michigan State's win over Wisconsin, including 4-of-4 on the game-winning drive.
  • Wisconsin running back Montee Ball was not touched on 18 of his 29 rushing touchdowns this season.
  • Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson is completing 51.3 percent of his passes of 15-plus yards this season and only has two interceptions in 80 attempts. Both interceptions came against Michigan State. Dating back to Week 9 of last season -- when Wilson played for NC State -- he has thrown just three interceptions in his last 130 throws of 15 yards or longer. Wilson's teams are 0-3 in games over the past two seasons when he throws two or more interceptions on these throws. He has significantly improved his accuracy on these throws from last year, when he connected on just 33.6 percent of his passes.
  • Ball has more rushing yards and 13 more rushing touchdowns than any other player in the nation since Nov. 13, 2010, when Wisconsin's top running back John Clay went down with an injury. Since that point, Ball leads FBS players in rush yards (2,272), rushing touchdowns (41) and rushes of 15 yards or longer (40).
  • Spartans senior wideout B.J. Cunningham has emerged as Cousins' big-play threat. Cunningham has four of the team’s five receiving touchdowns on passes of 20 yards or longer this season, including one last week against Northwestern. The lone Spartan touchdown on one of these throws not caught by Cunningham was the "Hail Mary" catch by Keith Nichol against Wisconsin.
  • After sharing the Big Ten Championship a year ago, the squads are targeting consecutive conference crowns. Michigan State, which has won seven Big Ten titles, looks for consecutive Big Ten crowns for the first time since the 1965 and 1966 seasons. Wisconsin, winners of 12 Big Ten Championships in program history, looks for back-to-back conference titles for the first time since 1998 and 1999.
  • The 20-point mark has become significant for Wisconsin under coach Bret Bielema. The Badgers are 41-2 in his tenure, including 18 straight wins, when limiting its opponent to 20 points or less. Conversely, Wisconsin is 54-7 when scoring more than 20 points.
Wisconsin and Michigan State will play for the Big Ten championship this Saturday in Indianapolis. Of course, it is a rematch of their Oct. 22 meeting, won by [spoiler alert!] the Spartans 37-31 in one of the best games of the college football season.

In order to understand all the storylines and key matchups of this week's game, it's crucial to know exactly what happened the first time. So I decided to go back and watch that initial encounter and, with apologies to Bill Simmons, provide my thoughts and observations in a retro diary. You can follow along through the magic of ESPN3.com here. Or you can just read.

This first installment will cover the first half of the game. I'll be back later on today with the second-half diary. Wonder if anything cool will happen late in the game?

Pregame

  • Kirk Herbstreit says, "This is what we've all wanted to see for a number of weeks." I think the same line could be used Saturday night.
  • Michigan State's Keith Nichol is one of the first Spartans to come out of the tunnel for introductions. I've got a hunch he could play a role in this one somehow.
  • I don't know how good the audio quality is on my replay, but it sounds extremely quiet when Wisconsin takes the field. No boos, just silence. Someone who was there will have to tell me if that's how it really went down at Spartan Stadium. If so, I think that's the best way to taunt an opponent; just ignore them. I recommend this for all home fans from here on out.
[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesWisconsin will be dangerous on the ground again in 2012 with Montee Ball and James White returning.
First quarter

  • 15:00: Wisconsin wins the toss and takes the ball first. The first play of the game is a handoff to Montee Ball, who runs 8 yards before plowing into Isaiah Lewis's shoulder. Lewis goes down and has to leave the game. Remember, Lewis gave the Badgers some major bulletin board material the week before after beating Michigan, saying the Spartans defense "was going to hurt" Russell Wilson. You think Ball remembered that as he slammed into Lewis?
  • 12:03: Russell Wilson throws his first pass -- complete to Jacob Pedersen -- after four straight Ball runs have softened up the defense. Lewis comes back in.
  • 8:48: On third-and-4, Wilson play-fakes to Ball and throws a touchdown pass to a wide-open Pedersen with Anthony Rashad White and Marcus Rush bearing down on the quarterback. That was the second straight completion off play-action for Wilson, as Michigan State's safeties and linebackers are biting hard on the run. It's a textbook, 80-yard Wisconsin style drive with almost perfect balance. The game could not have started off better for the Badgers. 7-0, Wisconsin
  • 8:33: Uh-oh for Sparty. Tailback Edwin Baker fumbles on Michigan State's first offensive play, thanks to a hit from linebacker Mike Taylor. The officials review whether or not Wisconsin's Marcus Cromartie touched the ball first while coming from out of bounds on the recovery, but the play stands and the Badgers take over.
  • 7:42: Wisconsin needs only three plays to cash in the fumble, as Ball rushes up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown. 14-0, Wisconsin. Wilson completed another pass off play-action immediately before. It was not a good series for Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson, who was fooled on the play-fake and then broke the wrong way before unsuccessfully trying to arm tackle Ball. Hey, the Badgers might win this game in a blowout!
  • 3:47: Michigan State picks up a pair of first downs but can't convert a third-and-14 and has to punt. At least its defense got a little bit of a breather, but if Wisconsin goes in for another score this one could get out of hand early.
  • 0:33: And we have our first Badgers mistake. After the offense drove to midfield, Wilson throws an interception to -- guess who? -- Robinson. It's only the second interception of the year for Wilson, who threw his other one on a meaningless play late in the Northern Illinois blowout. But I don't put this one entirely on him. Receiver Nick Toon appears to break the wrong way on the route, and he doesn't even start to look for the ball until it's nearly over his head. Remember that Toon missed the previous game with a foot injury he suffered two weeks earlier against Nebraska. He looked a little rusty/anxious, especially as he drew an uncharacteristic false start penalty later in the half. But the play was set up by a loss of 1 yard by James White on first down. The second-and-long prompted offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to put Wilson in the shotgun and not use play-action, allowing the safeties to stick in pass coverage. Even if Wilson and Toon had been on the same page, it was a low-percentage throw into double coverage, and that's not Wisconsin's game.
  • 0:26: I love, love, love the fact that Wilson sprints down the field and actually makes the tackle on Robinson, even though his form could use a little work.
  • 0:18: Michigan State, which has negative-9 rushing yards to this point, finally gets something going on the ground. The Spartans wide receivers blow up the right side of Wisconsin's defense, and Le'Veon Bell rushes 32 yards behind tackle Fou Fonoti, who's dying to find someone to block. Momentum seems to be changing.
[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Keshawn Martin
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREMichigan State's Keshawn Martin scores a 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Wisconsin.
Second quarter

  • 14:15: Kirk Cousins and Larry Caper can't quite connect for a screen pass on third-and-6, which was set up perfectly and might have resulted in an easy touchdown. The Spartans have another empty possession. But Bell's big run has flipped field position, leading to ...
  • 14:04: Mike Sadler punts the ball out of bounds at the Wisconsin 5. We didn't mention Sadler when we talked about freshmen of the year candidates in the Big Ten, but he has been a valuable weapon for Mark Dantonio all year long.
  • 13:58 to 13:10: Disaster strikes for Wisconsin. First, Jerel Worthy finally makes his presence felt, stuffing Ball for a 3-yard loss back to the 2. Then Wilson is called for intentional grounding in the end zone under heavy pressure from Denicos Allen. That's a safety, and it's now 14-2, Wisconsin. Chryst dialed up play-action again and looked to be going for a big throw over the top. But the call actually helped Michigan State, because the linebackers darted up field to stop the run. Ball has had an amazing season, but he whiffed on Allen to let "The Waterboy" get right to Wilson, who had little choice but to throw it away. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, there was no receiver on the side of the field where Wilson could get rid of the ball.
  • 11:22: Razzle, meet dazzle. After a beautiful throw from Cousins to tight end Brian Linthicum, Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar dials up some trickery. The Spartans line up in the I-formation. Cousins fakes a handoff to Bell, then hands it to receiver B.J. Cunningham on a reverse. Cunningham then pitches it to Keshawn Martin coming the other way. Wisconsin blitzed to the side Martin is now running toward, leaving no one left to tackle the Spartans' speedster except safety Aaron Henry. And he's sandwiched by three blockers. Martin scores from 34 yards out to make the score 14-9, Wisconsin. Martin has been on fire the latter part of this season.
  • 8:41: Wisconsin's offense mounts a good drive in response, and receiver Jared Abbrederis takes a jet sweep 21 yards. It's no coincidence that Abbrederis runs to the side where suspended defensive end William Gholston would have been. The Badgers have been attacking his replacement, Denzel Drone. Gholston's return is a big factor in this week's game.
  • 7:49 to 7:22: A tough sequence here for Ball. First, he misses another block, allowing cornerback Johnny Adams to blow up a play when he tackles Wilson from behind. Then he takes a Robinson shoulder to the head after a 7-yard run. Ball gets up from the tackle and then falls back down in a scary scene. He's escorted off the field and is given concussion tests on the sideline as Wisconsin fans hold their breath. Ball has 68 yards rushing and a touchdown when he goes out.
  • 6:42: On third-and-short from the Michigan State 14, White is stopped shy of the first down when Kyler Elsworth sheds a Pedersen block and makes the tackle. Great defensive play. No disrespect to White, but it makes you wonder if Ball would have gotten the extra few feet had he been in the game.
  • 5:55: Philip Welch's 30-yard field goal try is blocked by Darqueze Dennard, who ran in free from the left end. I'm not sure if Welch would have made the kick anyway, because Brad Nortman bobbled the snap, which disrupted the timing of the play. Wisconsin converted 62 of 65 trips in the red zone into points this season, second best in the FBS. But it comes up empty in a big spot here.
  • 1:40: Michigan State moves the ball down the field, but Baker is tackled for a loss to set up fourth-and-2 from the Wisconsin 35. Dantonio doesn't hesitate to go for it, and Roushar calls a great, if somewhat risky, play. Cousins waits for Cunningham to find a hole behind the linebackers in a long-developing route. But Wisconsin doesn't get any pressure on Cousins, and he hits Cunningham in the middle of three Badgers defenders. Taylor misses a tackle in a difficult matchup for him, and Cunningham is off for a touchdown to make it 16-14, Michigan State. It's the second straight year that Cunningham catches a fourth-down touchdown pass in a key spot. Think Wisconsin will know where he is if a big fourth down comes up again Saturday? The game's final play got all the attention, but this was just as big.
  • 0:45: Complete catastrophe for the Badgers. A fired up Spartans defense forces a three and out at Wisconsin 45, and then backup linebacker Ellsworth makes his second huge play of the game. He blocks Nortman's punt, and Bennie Fowler recovers the ball in the end zone to make it 23-14 Michigan State. The Spartans brought four defenders untouched up the middle against Wisconsin's three-man punt protection unit, and Ellsworth flew right by Robert Burge. In Burge's defense, middle protector Ryan Groy was slow to pick up his block, and Burge looked like he couldn't decide whether to chip Ellsworth or help on Kurtis Drummond right up the gut. "It was nothing special we haven't seen on film," Bret Bielema will tell Erin Andrews at halftime. "We've just got to block all four."
  • 0:00: The half mercifully ends for Wisconsin as Spartan Stadium is rocking. In a 15-minute span from the end of the first quarter to the final score of the half, the Badgers threw an interception, gave up a safety, had a field goal blocked, had a punt blocked for a touchdown, allowed a touchdown pass on fourth down and surrendered another score on a trick play. In basketball terms, it's a 23-0 spurt. Things can't get any worse for Wisconsin, or better for Michigan State. Can they?
Paul Chryst and Pat NarduzziGetty ImagesPat Narduzzi, left, and Paul Chryst coordinate elite units, which will lock horns in the Big Ten title game.

If your team has a head-coaching vacancy -- looking at you, Illinois fans -- you're probably hearing the names Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi right about now.

Chryst, the Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Narduzzi, the Michigan State defensive coordinator, are the two hottest candidates among Big Ten assistants to become head coaches in the coming days and weeks.

Both men have been instrumental in Wisconsin and Michigan State becoming new powers in the Big Ten. Both men oversee units ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major statistical categories (scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, rush defense, scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense). And both should be fielding some calls from other programs.

If you're not familiar with Chryst and Narduzzi, there's some good news for you. They'll be coaching directly against one another Saturday night when No. 13 Michigan State takes on No. 15 Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.

While Chryst is working on another record-setting season with Wisconsin's offense, Narduzzi's defense has taken a significant step forward this year.

The Spartans' defense moved from good -- it ranked 43rd nationally in total defense and 39th in points allowed last year -- to nationally elite. Michigan State's defense leads the Big Ten in the following categories: rushing defense (102.5 yards per game), total defense (266.7 ypg), sacks (38), interceptions (16) and third-down defense (32.9 percent conversions). Narduzzi's crew has held seven opponents to 17 points or fewer and six opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Michigan State has allowed only eight rushing touchdowns all year and just 30 trips inside the red zone.

"I think he's a genius," Spartans senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "With how we watch film and how he breaks everything down -- him and the GAs and the coaches -- they do such a great job. Every game we go into, even the games that we've lost, we lost on not executing. It's not like bad coaching, play calls or anything, it’s just us missing a tackle or blowing a coverage ."

Narduzzi and the other Michigan State coaches were off-limits to the media this week, but he took some time this spring with ESPN.com to break down the Spartans' approach to defending the power run. Check out the videos here and here. Coincidentally, the opponent in the clips is Wisconsin.

Robinson said he and his fellow defenders are never shocked by a formation or a play an opponent showcases. They've already seen it in practice.

Narduzzi also keeps his players in mind when crafting game plans.

"Nothing's really complicated for us," said Robinson, who is tied with teammate Isaiah Lewis for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. "He makes it as simple as possible, and if the guys aren't liking something, like a certain play, coach will be like, 'You guys aren't liking this? OK, scratch it. If you're not comfortable with it, we're not doing it.' So he makes sure all of us players are comfortable with the calls that he has. It's a great thing."

Wisconsin's offense has thrived in Chryst's five-plus seasons as offensive coordinator, averaging more than 34 points per game. Last year the Badgers averaged 41.5 points, shattering the team scoring record by more than a touchdown per game. This year's unit is on pace to surpass the mark, averaging 44.8 points a game.

Under Chryst's watch Wisconsin has produced the Big Ten offensive player of the year in two of the past three seasons (running back John Clay in 2009, running back Montee Ball this year). Quarterbacks like John Stocco, Scott Tolzien and more recently Russell Wilson are among the most successful in team history.

"Paul Chryst uses players' abilities as good as any coach I've ever been around," Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said. "As a head coach, you really appreciate coordinators that understand the skill set of your players and how to use them and maximize those skills. Everybody has a weakness, and if you can hide it or minimize it, you're going to be better overall. Paul really does a good job of that."

Montee Ball
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith Montee Ball (28) and Russell Wilson (16), coordinator Paul Chryst has made Wisconsin's offense even more prolific than in past years.
Wisconsin's offense lacks glitz or gimmicks, and the Badgers make no secret about their intention to overpower their opponents from a one-back set. Although Wisconsin recruits to its vision on offense, Chryst has shown the ability to adjust, especially this year with Wilson, whose skills are unlike what the Badgers typically have at quarterback.

"We'll do some things that will become staples of your offense or of your program," Chryst said, "but each year, you adjust to the players you have."

Chryst played a big role in attracting Wilson to Madison from North Carolina State, and Wilson describes his coach as having "a calmness to him, but a competitive edge that most people can't match."

"He always wants his players to understand the whys of football," Wilson said. "That's what I love. ... I ask a lot of questions."

Wilson admits to peppering Chryst about his past experiences working with quarterbacks like Derek Anderson at Oregon State. Chryst also spent time with Drew Brees during a one-year stint as a San Diego Chargers offensive assistant.

"The value to coaching a lot of different players is it really just reinforces how different each guy is," Chryst said. "It's your job as a coach then to know the player and then adjust. There's a lot of different ways to have success. You realize Scotty Tolzien can have success different than Russell Wilson or Derek Anderson or other guys I've been around."

Chryst's name has come up before at this time of year for coaching vacancies elsewhere. Texas courted him for its offensive coordinator vacancy after the 2010 season, and Chryst was on Purdue's radar to replace Joe Tiller.

Earlier this week Chryst denied having contact with Illinois about its vacancy, and he remains focused on facing the Narduzzi-led Spartans defense on Saturday night.

"You can put yourself into a cocoon," he said. "Who cares what's being rumored about? I've got a job and that's to coach football here at Wisconsin. The best thing you can do is do your job well."

Both Chryst and Narduzzi have done their jobs very well this season, possibly setting them up for better things.
Consider it an early Christmas gift for a league that could use some good tidings.

The inaugural Big Ten championship game allows the conference to put its best foot forward after a year where little went right.

A rough 2011 began, fittingly, on New Year's Day when the Big Ten went 0-5 in bowl games, including three double-digit losses to the dreaded SEC. It led many to call the day the worst in league history. While the label might be applicable to what happens on the field, the bad news for the Big Ten was only getting started. Ohio State's NCAA case blew up during the spring and early summer, and the Penn State sex-abuse scandal dominated the headlines for much of the past month.

The Big Ten needs to shift the spotlight and change the discussion. The title game provides a nice diversion.

It features Michigan State and Wisconsin, widely regarded as the Big Ten's top teams. The championship marks a rematch of arguably the most entertaining game of the college football season, which ended on a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that lifted Michigan State to a 37-31 win Oct. 22. The Spartans and Badgers are emerging powers in the league and, unlike other potential title game participants, they have kept the championship week discussion to the happenings on the field rather than the controversy off of it.

"These are the two most deserving teams," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com. "They both have play-makers, they both have great defenders, they've both been consistent, and they had an earlier game that was, if not the best game, one of the best games in the country this year.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
Mark A. Cunningham/Getty ImagesKirk Cousins is the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history.
"We're expecting a great inaugural game. Tremendous excitement."

Highlighting the game are the quarterbacks, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson. After a year where some of the Big Ten's more prominent players and coaches made headlines for the wrong reasons, the league couldn't have two better representatives for its signature game.

Cousins is the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history (26 victories) and has guided the Spartans to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time. He holds team records for career touchdown passes (62), completion percentage (64.3) and passing efficiency (147.4). Cousins is just the second player in Spartans history to be named a team captain three times.

Despite all his success on the field and in the locker room, Cousins might be better known for his contributions elsewhere. He speaks to religious groups and volunteers at the local children's hospital. His riveting speech at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon in late July made national news.

"He's a very different type of person in terms of the normal college student you see," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "He can be on this phone call with [reporters] and speak to you like a college coach who's been coaching for 30 years. He can speak to presidents at universities, he can speak to the board of trustees, and then he can also go in the locker room and clown around with the players: black, white, walk-on, scholarship, starter, freshman, whatever it is. He just makes a smooth transition into every environment where he's speaking, whether it's the Big Ten luncheon or whether it's in the locker room.

"Those are the things that really become difference-makers for you in a position such as quarterback."

Dantonio added that in his three decades in coaching he's never seen a player with Cousins' adaptability as a leader.

"I'm just wired to be a relational person," Cousins said. "It's who I am. I would struggle in an environment where there aren't a great deal of relationships. I would struggle in a place where people aren't relational, and I would thrive and succeed in a place where people are open and friendly and communicating. I've learned a lot about myself in my five years here, and that's certainly one of the things I've learned.

"I succeed in a place that's a relational environment, and I've tried, as a quarterback and a leader on this team to make it that in the locker room, to be able to break down walls and build chemistry."

While Cousins had years to break down walls and build chemistry, Wilson has left his imprint at Wisconsin in just five months on campus. Just seven weeks after his arrival, Wilson was elected a co-captain by his teammates, a move that surprised him.

Wilson's impact on the field has been profound for a Badgers offense coming off of a record-setting season in 2010. The senior quarterback leads the nation in pass efficiency (192.9) and is on pace to break Colt Brennan's NCAA record (186). He already has set the team record for single-season touchdown passes (28) and has fired a scoring strike on every 9.3 pass attempts, a mark that leads the nation. A top Heisman Trophy candidate for the first half of the season, Wilson has given Wisconsin a new type of weapon at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireIn only five months on campus, Russell Wilson has made his presence known at Wisconsin.
Some have criticized Wisconsin for adding a "rent-a-quarterback" and questioned whether Wilson should have been allowed to transfer without sitting out a season, but Wilson has approached the opportunity the right way and has been an exemplary addition both on and off the field.

"The No. 1 thing that Russell brings to the table is consistency," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Whether it's football play, whether it's character, whether it's practice habits, preparation, execution, coming through in clutch situations ... everything about Russell Wilson is consistent."

One of Wilson's most important moments as a Badger didn't come on a Saturday, but rather after the team suffered back-to-back heartbreaking losses. Along with fellow captain Aaron Henry, Wilson asked the coaches to leave the locker room and held a players' meeting.

"If you love the game, you have to bring it every single day," Wilson said. "That's what I talked to the guys about. Forget all the noise and focus on what we need to focus on, and that's to play the best football we can play from here on out. I think we've done that. Everybody adjusted. Everybody made sure that we were on the same page.

"The communication this season has been great."

Amid the wild celebration at Spartan Stadium after Michigan State beat Wisconsin on Oct. 22, Cousins found Wilson on the field and delivered a message.

"I said, 'First of all, you're a class act and you're the real deal as a person and not just a football player," Cousins said. "Secondly, 'I think we're going to see you guys again. It was a tough battle here today, but it may not be the end of it.

"Both of us felt that would be the case, and here we are."

And after a rough year, the Big Ten is better off for it.
Five items to track Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten championship game between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio might have some tricks up his sleeve in the Big Ten Championship game.
1. Third-down efficiency: Arguably no statistic has played a bigger role in Michigan State's past two victories against Wisconsin. Michigan State converted 50 percent of its third-down opportunities in each game -- 9 of 18 in 2010, 8 of 16 this year -- to repeatedly extend drives and put up points. The Spartans converted 8 of 13 third-down opportunities last Saturday at Northwestern but only rank No. 82 nationally on the season (38.5 percent). Wisconsin, meanwhile, leads the nation in third-down conversions (55.2 percent) and ranks 32nd in third-down defense (36.4 percent). "They're very good at converting third downs," Badgers defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "We need to come up with a good plan."

2. The R-word: For Michigan State, it's about respect, or lack thereof. Spartans players have been candid about the lack of respect they've received all season despite their success. "Every game we go into, we're the underdog," senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "Everybody says Michigan State is going to lose by this amount." Count the Vegas odds makers in that group, but Michigan State has used the outside view as fuel during its impressive season. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is downplaying another R-word -- revenge. Although Michigan State won the first meeting, Badgers players began stiff-arming the revenge story line immediately after last Saturday's win. They need to play with composure, especially since Michigan State drew no penalties in the teams' first meeting.

3. Neutral-site factor: The Big Ten has never had a title game before, and it will be interesting to see the atmosphere and how it impacts the game. Michigan State fans seem a bit more geared up than their Wisconsin counterparts, and the Spartans-Badgers fan split should be interesting. Will the game be a sellout? Should be close if it's not. Wisconsin hasn't been the same team outside Madison this season, but the Badgers won't be playing in a true road environment. Michigan State performed very well in its last two road games. The Spartans are the more tested team outside their own building this season. Wisconsin's best road/neutral-site win came against Northern Illinois, while Michigan State has beaten Iowa, Northwestern and Ohio State.

4. Special teams and The Gambler: Michigan State has held a decided edge in the kicking game in each of the past two meetings with Wisconsin. Keshawn Martin had a punt return for a touchdown in 2010, and the Spartans blocked a punt for a touchdown Oct. 22 to cap a huge second quarter. Wisconsin has had punts blocked in each of its two losses, and the Badgers can't let the dangerous Martin get free in the open field. Also, keep an eye on Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, who has shown he isn't afraid to call a trick play at key moments, particularly in the kicking game. Special teams is an area where Michigan State can capitalize.

5. MoneyBall's quest: Top Heisman Trophy candidates Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck aren't playing games Saturday, so Wisconsin running back Montee Ball gets one final big-stage opportunity to show why he's one of the nation's best players. Ball is five touchdowns shy of Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record (39) and has scored at least twice in every game this season (seven games of three or more scores). Ball had 115 rush yards and a touchdown against Michigan State on Oct. 22 but missed some time after taking a shot to the head. Wisconsin's offense wasn't the same with Ball on the sideline. The Badgers will need Ball on the field for 60 minutes Saturday night, while Michigan State's defense must contain No. 28.
Championship week is here.

Normally, we'd be kicking up our feet this weekend and watching the other leagues own the college football spotlight. But the arrival of the inaugural Big Ten football championship game changes everything. We'll both be in Indianapolis to see Legends Division champion Michigan State take on Leaders Division champ Wisconsin, and it's time to make our predictions.

Bennett ended the regular season with a commanding two-game lead in the standings. He needs to hold on through Saturday and through the bowl games to call himself a champion. Rittenberg is still licking his wounds from the fantasy league beat-down his Trombone Shorties received. He needs to close the gap before the bowls wrap up.

Prediction time.

BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

No. 15 WISCONSIN vs. No. 13 MICHIGAN STATE (Indianapolis)

Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin is heavily favored, but this will be a close game. Both teams are playing good football right now and you can argue Michigan State has played even better during the month of November. The Spartans will lead a good portion of the game as Kirk Cousins and his receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin find some gaps in the Wisconsin defense. But Wisconsin knows what it needs to do to win: play better third-down defense and avoid a special-teams meltdown. The Badgers play a clean game in the third phases and force some key stops in the second half. Russell Wilson and Montee Ball get it going in the fourth quarter and Wilson throws the game-winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes. Wisconsin knocks down a Hail Mary after five deflections to seal the win and head back to the Rose Bowl. ... Wisconsin 31, Michigan State 27

Brian Bennett: I've been going back and forth on this all week, and understandably so. The last five meetings between these two teams have been decided by an average of 5.6 points. The Spartans have won three of the past four in the series, but all those victories came in East Lansing. They won't have home field this time. But they will have William Gholston, unlike this year's earlier meeting, and I think Jerel Worthy can cause some more problems against Wisconsin's reshuffled center situation. I find it hard to believe that the Badgers will make as many mistakes as they did in their nightmarish second quarter earlier this year at Spartan Stadium, and they have plenty of motivation after losing on a Hail Mary. But I just get the sense that this Michigan State team is on a mission to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988, and Mark Dantonio's team will find a way to get there. No Hail Marys this time, but Cousins throws another game-winning touchdown pass to wrap it up in the final two minutes, setting off the biggest Sparty Party ever in the streets of Indy. ... Michigan State 35, Wisconsin 31

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 73-24 (.753)

Adam Rittenberg: 71-26 (.732)
The Big Ten's national title drought will reach nine years in January, but the league appears to have fostered better depth on the field than it had a year ago.

Off the field, it has been a rough year for the conference despite the arrival of Nebraska, record TV ratings and record attendance figures. The Ohio State NCAA violations situation dominated the spotlight for much of the early summer, and the Penn State sex-abuse scandal, an unprecedented story in college sports, has brought back notoriety in the past month.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany weighed in on the year both on and off the field.

"Off the field, the situation at Penn State was unprecedented," Delany told ESPN.com. "Obviously, there are a lot of inquiries that are playing out there. Our concern, like everyone’s concern, is for the damage that's been done to young people. That obviously has been very painful for everybody in America, forget about people in the Big Ten and people in Pennsylvania. I think it's just a tragedy of the first order, something that we are living through today. I don't think there's any way you can talk about this season, on or off the field, without mentioning how difficult that has been.

"We won't know for a while exactly where civil or criminal liability may be, but what we do know is there have been a number of injured parties. That's been very difficult."

Delany declined to say what role the Big Ten has going forward with Penn State but said the situation "continues to be something we remain focused on."

As for the Big Ten's on-field performance?

"We started off the season with a lot of parity," Delany said. "It played out that way. We had teams that were probably a little better than some people thought, teams that didn’t do as well as some people thought. But for the most part, we had five or six teams in the Top 25. With Wisconsin losing a couple and everybody having at least two losses, that really knocks you out of the [national] championship conversation.

"But internally we had great ratings, great games, great fan base, tremendous attendance, and races that went all the way through the month of November, right up to Penn State and Wisconsin."

Delany noted that the fact both division champs have two losses shows the parity in the league. He gives the season a "good grade" and said a lot of programs are "in a position where they can challenge for elite status."

The bottom line, though, is that the Big Ten will be watching once again when a team raises the crystal football in January.

"You can count it," he said of the title drought. "I wish we had eight of them in the nine-year period, but we don't. We don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. You tee it up, you get ready to go. The SEC's record speaks for itself. We've been in the mix. There have been [other leagues], if you want to grade people that haven't been there or weren’t close to being there or haven’t won BCS games. We've won BCS games. We've been there. We've played three times [in the title game], we've won one. I would, overall, think that we’ve done fairly well.

"Although it would be nice to win more, I can't say we haven't been right in the mix."
The event features the Big Ten's top two teams meeting on a historic night with a Rose Bowl berth at stake.

The inaugural Big Ten championship game, played Saturday night at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium, has no shortage of story lines and intrigue. There are national award candidates like Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, two excellent senior quarterbacks in Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson and two of the Big Ten's rising coaching in Bret Bielema and Mark Dantonio.

But one thing is missing: national title implications.

The Big Ten championship game has no bearing on which two teams meet for the crystal football Jan. 9 in New Orleans.

How much does this matter? Should Big Ten fans care?

"It's a different game," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "When it has a national championship implication, it tends to draw more interest. I don't think there's any doubt about that. ... I don't think it would be real accurate or real smart to say the game wouldn’t have more involved if one of the teams or both of the teams were looking at a championship opportunity.

"Having said that, I would say playing in the Rose Bowl has been and continues to be on everybody’s checklist, every player recruited here, every player who coaches here and every fan of the school."

Fan turnout for the title game became a hot topic Wednesday, mainly because of a Craig's List post requesting "seat-fillers" who would be paid for a major event in downtown Indianapolis. The Big Ten denied having anything to do with the posting.

Michigan State quickly sold its allotment of 15,450 tickets for the game, but Wisconsin hadn't sold its allotment as of Tuesday. Single tickets for the game are available on Stubhub.com for as low as $7.99. The Big Ten on Monday announced that approximately 2,000 tickets were being made available to the public, priced from $80-$175.

The Indianapolis Star reports Wednesday that the secondary ticket market is soft for the game.

"Michigan State sold their allotment in a day and a half," Delany told ESPN.com on Tuesday morning. "We haven't heard back from Wisconsin yet, but we're optimistic they’ll have a sellout. If not, there may be a few tickets available."

The game undoubtedly will attract interest in the Big Ten footprint, but the absence of national title implications could make it tough to move the needle nationally.

"Internally, it probably makes no difference," Delany said. "Externally, it might make some difference. But from a fan perspective, a player perspective and a coach perspective, I don't think the kids will play any harder or be more ready. From the standpoint of people in Oregon or Alabama or Washington D.C., it may affect their view of it."

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