Coach Bret Bielema was hopeful that UW's end-of-the-year matchup with Penn State through 2014 would develop into something special, but the Badgers just laid a 45-7 victory on a Nittany Lions team that looks to be getting worse before getting better.
Enter Michigan State into the picture. Despite being in different divisions, the two programs are 4-4 against each other in the last eight games, have both been ranked in each of the last three meetings and the last five games have been decided by one score, including Michigan State's 37-31 last-second victory in late October.
How fitting then that the two schools will meet in the inaugural Big Ten championship game while the historical ‘big boys' like Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State watch the new faces of the conference from home.
"It's definitely two of the best teams," said UW senior quarterback Russell Wilson. "We have a great offense, they have a great defense. They have a great offense and we have a great defense. It's going to be a battle. That's usually the case every season."
Since the start of the 2009 season, Wisconsin is 31-7, the best record among Big Ten teams over that span, and has won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons for the first time in school history.
Over that same time, Penn State is 27-11, Ohio State is 29-9 (although 12 wins from 2010 have been vacated), Michigan is 22-15, Michigan State stands 27-11 and Nebraska, which played in the Big 12 the previous two seasons, is 29-11. That success, according to Bielema, doesn't just happen, and it's because of his team's balance.
In Barry Alvarez's last seven seasons at Wisconsin, the Badgers rushed for an average of 200 yards once (third in the nation with 279.5 rushing yards in 1999) and finished in the top 40 in the nation in rushing six times. During that same time span, Wisconsin passed for an average of 200 yards or more three times (2001, 2003 and 2005) but finished 90th nationally or lower four times.
In six years under Bielema, Wisconsin has ranked in the top 15 in rushing four times (including this season), rushed for over 200 yards the last five seasons, passed for at an average of at least 199.5 five times and averaged at least 199.5 yards rushing or passing the last three seasons.
This season, Wisconsin is tops in the Big Ten in scoring offense (44.8), total offense (477.1), pass efficiency (186.3) and turnover margin (1.17).
"It's a point of emphasis," Bielema said "It's what we talk about every day. It's what we believe in during January, February, March when we are drilling certain things. I think that balance is good, it's just another indication of a team that really plays well together."
While Wisconsin has obtained offensive balance this season, Michigan State has done so on the defensive side, ranking first in the conference in total defense (266.7 ypg) right ahead of Wisconsin (278.2). The Badgers' 31 points are tied for the most the Spartans have allowed all season (they allowed 31 in a loss to Notre Dame) and lead the conference in rushing defense and quarterback sacks and are second in scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and tackles for loss.
"They obviously are a very good defense" Bielema said. "The thing that stands out to me defensively is that they have a couple key guys at each tier. They have a couple defensive linemen who I think are exceptional football players, two linebackers that are very productive, they have a couple of safeties, a corner- so there really isn't a weakness in the group. That allows them to play consistently."
In the team's first meeting this season, Wisconsin can point to a number of areas of fault. The Badgers lost the turnover battle and time of possession battle, gave away 10 points on special teams, allowed MSU to convert 8 of 16 third downs and one fourth down and couldn't sustain a 14-0 first quarter lead by being outscored 23-0 in the second quarter.
"The thing that we have to be able to do is take advantage of all of the opportunities we get" Bielema said. "There were times during the first game we were very productive, and moved the ball down the field efficiently. Other times we didn't have success on third down, obviously we had two turnovers in that game as well so we have to be able to maintain possession of the football and hopefully good things will happen."
Bielema also couldn't escape the reoccurring nightmare of Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins completing a 44-yard touchdown pass to Keith Nichol off a deflection with no time left on the clock, a loss that effectively ended Wisconsin's national title aspirations.
"One play matters" Bielema said. "You hear coaches talk about it all of the time. There is one play that turns the game, one play that turns the season- so every play matters. From the first kickoff or kickoff return to that final play as we learned in the last game against (Michigan State) every play matters."
It's a philosophy that Wilson subscribes to. Having kept a level head and staying focused when there is pressure surrounding him, Wilson isn't going to deviate with the pressure ramped up this weekend with another championship on the line.
"That one particular play has to be the best play of the day," he said. "I think that's the way you win a game. I think that's the way you win a game against a great team, against Michigan State, and we have a great team too, so it's one of those things where whoever is focused the longest is probably going to win."
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