Commentary

Sparty's win sets up showdown

Originally Published: October 17, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins just won one of the biggest games of his college career, leading the Spartans to a 28-14 victory over Michigan on Saturday, handing the Wolverines their first defeat of the season.

[+] EnlargeCousins
AP Photo/Al GoldisKirk Cousins and Michigan State are coming off two emotional wins.

Cousins, a senior from Holland, Mich., became the first Spartans quarterback to win three straight games over the Wolverines. Michigan State has won four consecutive games against Michigan for the first time since 1959-62, matching their longest win streak in the series.

"For the rest of our life, we will walk the streets of this state [knowing we're 4-0 against Michigan]," Cousins told reporters after the game. "It's satisfying."

But Cousins knows upsetting No. 6 Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday night might be even more important for the No. 16 Spartans. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) has a half-game lead over Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa in the loss column of the Legends Division standings. Wisconsin (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) and Penn State are the only remaining unbeaten teams in conference play in the Leaders Division.

The winners of the Legends and Leaders divisions will play in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3.

"All the games are big," Cousins said Sunday. "They're all big in their own way. Certainly, Michigan is in-state and it's for pride and ownership rights in the state. This game [against Wisconsin] is against a great team and will get a lot of national exposure. We know we've got to win all of our Big Ten games. A game like this could certainly catapult us to the championship game."

The Spartans certainly won't have to look hard for motivation. Last season, Michigan State defeated Wisconsin, 34-24, in East Lansing, handing the Badgers their only loss of the regular season. Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin finished the 2010 season with identical 7-1 records in Big Ten play. The Badgers received the Big Ten's invitation to play in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO because they were the highest ranked Big Ten team in the final Bowl Championship Series standings.

Ohio State was invited to play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl as an at-large team, and the Spartans were left to play Alabama in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on New Year's Day. The Spartans certainly didn't seem motivated to be there in an ugly 49-7 loss to the Crimson Tide.

"I don't think there's anything brewing from last year," Cousins said. "I think it's just an opportunity to play a great team like Wisconsin, which is playing as well as anyone in the country."

The Badgers are playing really well, leading the country in scoring with 50.1 points per game. Wisconsin has scored at least 35 points in every game and 48 or more in five of six.

The Badgers also rank No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency (197.4 rating), No. 7 in rushing (257.5 yards per game) and No. 8 in total offense (523.1 yards).

Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred from NC State this summer, leads FBS players in pass efficiency with a 210.9 rating, completing 74.2 percent of his passes for 1,557 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception.

"I see your typical Wisconsin football team," Cousins said. "They run the ball really, really well because of a great offensive line. I think that's what separates Wisconsin from other football teams -- their offensive line."

[+] EnlargeMichigan State/Wisconsin
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State's win over Wisconsin in 2010 was the Badgers' lone regular-season loss.

Michigan State's defense has been what has separated it from other teams this season. MSU's only loss was a 31-13 defeat at Notre Dame on Sept. 17.

The Spartans rank No. 1 nationally in pass defense (119.1 yards per game) and pass-efficiency defense (84.3 rating), along with a No. 2 ranking in total defense (186.1 yards), No. 3 in run defense (67 yards) and No. 4 in scoring defense (10.8 points).

MSU's defense wasn't supposed to be this good after losing starting linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon.

"They're playing very physical up front," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said Sunday. "I think their defensive line is very physical and they play with a nastiness. They're very aggressive, not with just their temperament, but they're going to blitz you and come after the quarterback any way they can."

Bielema said his team's loss at Michigan State last season helped them through an 11-2 finish. Wisconsin's offense went 3-for-11 on third down in last year's loss to MSU; its defense allowed 444 yards of offense and the Spartans went 9-for-18 on third down. MSU had nearly a 13-minute advantage in time of possession.

"We did a lot of things internally, like turnovers and penalties," Bielema said. "We didn't convert on third down and couldn't stop them on third down."

After losing in East Lansing, the Badgers won at Iowa and Michigan. Wisconsin didn't lose again until a 21-19 defeat against TCU in the Rose Bowl.

"I do know we grew up a lot in that game and carried it with us the rest of the season," Bielema said.

Both teams will learn Saturday night what lessons were actually learned a year ago.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskySammy Watkins found the end zone three times in Clemson's win over Maryland.

On the Mark

• Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said it took him about 10 minutes of practice to realize freshman receiver Sammy Watkins is a special player. ACC opponents are learning the hard way.

Watkins, from Fort Myers, Fla., broke Clemson's record for all-purpose yards in a game with 345 in the No. 7 Tigers' 56-45 victory at Maryland. Watkins actually botched the game's opening kickoff and later fumbled after making a catch inside the Tigers' 10-yard line. But he scored three touchdowns in the second half and had a 70-yard kickoff return to set up a touchdown. He completed Clemson's comeback from an 18-point deficit with an 89-yard kickoff return for a score.

"Sammy Watkins, what can I say about him tonight?" Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "I told him after the [fumble] in the first quarter that he owed me one. He certainly responded. He did show us he was human tonight, but to break [the] all-purpose record in just seven games is incredible."

• Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish, a senior from Bluffton, Ind., became only the 10th player in FBS history to both run and pass for 200 yards in the same game. Harnish had 203 yards on 14-for-27 passing and ran for 229 on 14 attempts in a 51-22 rout of Western Michigan on Saturday. Harnish only played three quarters and ran for 163 yards in the third quarter alone.

Among the other players who accomplished the rare feat: former Texas quarterback Vince Young against Oklahoma State in 2005; ex-West Virginia star Pat White against Pittsburgh in 2006; and Michigan's Denard Robinson against both Notre Dame and Indiana last season.

• It's a shame Washington isn't playing in the Pac-12 South. The Huskies might have played in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2. While the No. 25 Huskies still have to play at No. 8 Stanford on Saturday and host No. 10 Oregon on Nov. 5, they're off to a surprising 5-1 start.

The Huskies have scored 30 points or more in each of their games for the first time in school history, and sophomore quarterback Keith Price is a big reason why. Price, from Compton, Calif., has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 1,466 yards with 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has already thrown four more touchdowns than former Washington star Jake Locker threw in 12 games last season.

Price was 21-for-28 for 257 yards with four touchdowns in a 52-24 rout of Colorado on Saturday.

• SMU is off to a 5-1 start for the first time since 1986, a year before the NCAA canceled the Mustangs' 1987 season as part of its "death penalty" punishment for rules violations. The Mustangs routed Central Florida 38-17 on Saturday in a rematch of last season's Conference USA championship game.

SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott completed 20 of 31 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns. UCF was the only FBS team that hadn't allowed a touchdown pass this season before facing the Mustangs.

Off the Mark

• Illinois was off to a 6-0 start and was a victory away from matching its best start since 1951. Ohio State was 3-3 and seemingly reeling after blowing a 21-point lead in the second half of a 34-27 loss at Nebraska on Oct. 8.

Somehow, the Buckeyes found a way to beat the Illini 17-7 on the road Saturday, their eighth consecutive victory in Champaign, Ill. OSU won despite completing only one pass, which didn't come until freshman Braxton Miller threw a 17-yard touchdown to Jake Stoneburner with 13:06 to go. The Buckeyes ran for 211 yards on 51 attempts, and tailback Dan "Boom" Herron had 114 yards and one touchdown. He missed the first five games because of an NCAA suspension for receiving impermissible benefits.

• On Sept. 29, Pittsburgh looked like the class of the Big East after routing then-No. 16 South Florida 44-17. Since then, the Panthers have lost consecutive games, 34-10 at Rutgers and 26-14 to Utah at home Saturday. Pitt had 120 yards of total offense -- 50 passing and 70 rushing. The Panthers had three turnovers and went 3-for-15 on third down.

• Everything seemed to be in front of Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were 6-0 -- their best start since 1966 -- and had two more seemingly winnable games before their Oct. 29 showdown against No. 7 Clemson in Atlanta. But Tech's triple-option spread offense was shutdown in a 24-21 loss at Virginia on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets had only 296 yards of offense, and quarterback Tevin Washington had two completions and two interceptions. A penalty wiped out his 85-yard run early in the second half.

• The SEC might have the two highest-rated teams in the first Bowl Championship Series standings in LSU and Alabama and another top-10 team in Arkansas. But the SEC's depth is probably as thin as it has been in a decade. Half of the league's 12 teams already have three losses or more, and many of them will have to pull off an upset or two to finish better than .500. As it stands with five or six regular-season games to play, Florida, Mississippi State and Tennessee are in danger of finishing .500 or worse.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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