Thursday, December 1, 2011
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 14
By Adam Rittenberg
Five items to track Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten championship game between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin.
Michigan 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.