Sure there are the physical goals that can be obtained (win all the trophy games, defend home field, win the conference, etc.) but a fair amount of the goals are mental goals (go ‘1-0' every day, be better than you were yesterday, etc.).
As he sat at the podium following Wisconsin's 45-7 victory over Penn State that clinched the Badgers a share of the Big Ten Leaders Division title, Coach Bret Bielema commented that one of the goals was to embrace the lofty preseason expectations and make history at the University of Wisconsin.
Consider that goal achieved, as No.15 Wisconsin will play No.11 Michigan State in not only a rematch of the Badgers' 37-31 loss in East Lansing, but for the conference championship in the inaugural Big Ten Championship at Lucas Oil Field Saturday at 7:17 p.m.
"This is the first time in Big Ten history that we get rematches," Bielema said. "When this whole formula came up, we knew it would be a possibility. Leaving the field against Michigan State, I am sure a lot of our guys thought to that moment. The way the world works, it kind of panned itself out and it's right in front of us."
The plan the Sunday following back-to-back road losses for Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten) was simple: if the team wants to battle back into the position to play for the Rose Bowl, it's going to have to be a win-and-move-on playoff atmosphere the final four weeks of the season.
Consider the message received and understood. Not only has Wisconsin won all four games, it's dominated the competition, outscoring opponents 177-54 while piling up an average 450.3 yards per contest.
So despite two road losses in difficult environments, Bielema believes Wisconsin can play with anybody in the country, regardless of conference or national ranking.
"Bottom line to win the way we did tells me we can play with anyone," Bielema said.
But in order to truly believe that, Wisconsin has to win its conference, meaning it has to beat a Michigan State team that has won three of the last four meetings. The personalities of the two schools are entirely different (Michigan State with a boisterous aggressive mentality and Wisconsin with a quiet instinctual approach), but both schools have enjoyed similar success.
Over the last five years, Wisconsin is 47-17 and has the best record in the Big Ten since the start of the 2009 season (31-7). In five years under Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans are 43-21, and the former Cincinnati coach and Michigan State assistant went 33-19 after four years (the best record for any MSU coach in his first four seasons).
Last season, Wisconsin won its first conference championship since 1999 and advanced to its first Rose Bowl since 2000. Left to hold the bronze trophy in the Capitol One Bowl, Michigan State won its first conference championship since 1990 and is now looking to advance to its first Rose Bowl since the 1988 season.
"Last year we shared a piece of the Big Ten championship and we were very proud of that," said fifth-year senior guard Joel Foreman, who admitted most of the senior class was born during MSU's last Rose Bowl season. "But this season we wanted to come out and go to the first Big Ten championship game and be sole winners."
If Wisconsin wants to prevent Michigan State's trip west for the second consecutive season, the Badgers' defense will need to figure out how to stop the Spartans on third down.
A year after seeing Michigan State complete 9 of 18 third downs in a 34-24 loss in East Lansing, Wisconsin allowed the Spartans to complete 6 of 18 third downs and a fourth down in a road defeat Oct.22. Michigan State ranked 10th in third-down conversions each of the last two seasons, but that hasn't stopped them from tearing apart the UW secondary or completing a 44-yard Hail Mary on third-and-1.
"We played 70 great snaps and on the 71st snap, it was a Hail Mary and a touchdown," senior safety Aaron Henry said. "We have to go out and play every snap like it's our last and get the ball in the hands of our offense. We know what they are capable of and we have to generate turnovers and get off the field on third down. That was the huge telling stat on when we played Michigan State last time. As a defensive unit, it's going to boil down to that."
It also would help to put some pressure on three-year starter Kirk Cousins. The senior captain completed 10 of 14 passes for 128 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions on third down this season against Wisconsin, and eight of his completions resulted in first downs.
In UW's last four wins, the Badgers' defense has allowed 35 plays of 10 yards or more (8.75 per game). In the two losses, Wisconsin allowed 20 of those plays, 11 of which came against the Spartans.
"The first time we played them, we obviously gave up some big plays," said Bielema, also referring to the blocked punt for a touchdown at the end of the second quarter. "That's something we can't do and expect to win the ball game or have success."
Wisconsin left East Lansing five weeks ago and supposedly left most of its emotional baggage behind. The message coming from the starters this week has been discernible: the past has no bearing on the outcome of Saturday. The chance to make history has been embraced by Wisconsin. The question is now if they truly will be able to forget the past.
"We were certainly frustrated with that game but at this point in the season, things have changed," sophomore linebacker Chris Borland said. "It's really two opponents playing each other. We've maintained a similar level of confidence in the year, which has been important to our success. We could have gotten down after those two losses but the way we've played recently is the way we feel like we can play all year."
No.15/No.15 (AP/BCS) Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten - Leaders) vs. No.11/No.13 Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten - Legends)
Date/Time - Saturday, December 3 at 7:17 p.m. CT
Stadium –Lucas Oil Stadium (63,000/FieldTurf)
Television - Fox (Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, Tim Brewster and Dhani Jones)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)
Series – Michigan State leads 29-21-0 (UW leads 1-0-0 in neutral sites)
Last Meeting – Michigan State won, 37-31, on Oct. 22, 2011 in East Lansing
This will be the second game between the teams at a neutral site. The Badgers defeated MSU 41-20 on Dec. 4, 1993 in Tokyo, Japan to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl.
The home team has won the each of the last six meetings between the teams. Michigan State is the designated home team due to a coin toss done by the Big Ten conference.
This is will be the third-straight game between the two teams where both are ranked. Before last season, that had happened just one in the series' history.
In the last nine games between the two teams they have combined to score 65.6 points per game. The winning team has scored at least 34 points in eight of those games.
Michigan State's defensive line coach Ted Gill was the defensive line coach at Iowa during Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema's final two seasons as a Hawkeye d-lineman.
The Badgers rank fourth in the country in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The last BCS conference team to end a season ranked among the top five in the country in both those categories was Florida in 2008.
The Big Ten announced its award winners on Monday night and the Badgers had a school-record nine first-team honorees. That surpasses the former mark of eight, set by the 1993 team. This year, Nebraska and Michigan State tied for second with four first-team selections.
UW had five consensus (coaches and media) first-team selections, RB Montee Ball, QB Russell Wilson, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Josh Oglesby and LB Chris Borland. Ball was the only unanimous first-team selection, appearing on every coach's and media member's ballot.
The 20-point mark has become significant for UW under 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 is the only team in the country to have a QB ranked among the top 10 in the country in pass efficiency and a running back among the top 10 in rushing yards.
The Badgers are third in the country in pass defense, allowing just 144.5 yards per game through the air. Michigan State is the only team to pass for more than 200 yards against UW this season. UW has allowed fewer than 150.0 yards passing just once since 1991.
Michigan State Notes
The 2011 senior class has helped Michigan State to a record of 36-15 (.706) since 2008, including three straight bowl bids (2009 Capital One Bowl, 2010 Alamo Bowl, 2011 Capital One Bowl) and a fourth appearance to be determined following the Big Ten Championship Game. The 36 wins are the most by any senior class in the 115-year history of Michigan State football (previous record: 33 wins by 2010 class). The 2011 class is also the first to defeat Michigan four-straight years since 1959-62 and finished with a home record of 24-4 (.857).
Michigan State has won 21 of its last 25 games, dating back to the beginning of the 2010 season, including a 14-2 record in Big Ten play. The 21 wins over the last two seasons is the highest two-year total in school history and ties for seventh most among NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams during that same period. In addition, the Spartans have won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history. MSU also is one of 10 programs to have recorded at least 10 wins each of the last two seasons.
Over the last four years, Michigan State has won more Big Ten games (24) than any other conference team. (Note: Ohio State also won 24 games, but had to vacate seven victories following the 2010 season.)
Michigan State has recorded more than 400 yards of total offense in three of its last four games (402 vs. Minnesota; 443 vs. Iowa; 470 vs. Indiana). During MSU's current four-game winning streak, the Spartans are averaging 38.5 points and 423.8 total yards per game. In addition, Kirk Cousins has completed 71-of-108 throws (.657) for 1,042 yards (260.5 ypg.), 10 TDs and one interception during the four-game stretch.
The Spartans recorded 59 tackles for loss during Big Ten play, including a league-best 33 sacks. Michigan State's nine sacks at Ohio State tied a school record and also ranks tied for second in a single game this season in the NCAA FBS.
What else do Aaron Henry and Bradie Ewing have in common besides being senior captains? They won't be watching much sports television, especially when it comes to 44-yard touchdown passes.
Henry said that Wisconsin has to let that play go, but urges his teammates to remember what happen instead of seeing it happen over and over.
"We can't forget the opportunity that we let slip away," Henry said. "We have to learn from it and move on, even though it's going to be showed on television the whole week."
After every game, Henry always questions himself on what he could do better. From last Saturday, it was to figure out why he and cornerback Antonio Fenelus had a miscommunication and a breakdown that led to Penn State's only touchdown. It was an eerie reminder of the two road losses. The only cure to those questions for Henry is winning.
Henry talked at length about the opportunity Wisconsin has to write history Saturday playing in the first conference championship game and how that has been the thing the players have embraced leading up to the game, more so than the Hail Mary pass.
"You always remember the first one, whatever it is," Henry said. "For us to have the opportunity to be in the first one, we can go out there and take advantage of the opportunity and be talking about it for the rest of their lives."
I don't think anyone can honestly look me in the eye and think Wisconsin would have the Penn State game all but sewn up by halftime. It's a testament to how good this team has become on home: almost unbeatable. So, what's going to happen in a new, foreign environment that nobody can accurately forecast and with Wisconsin 9.5 point favorites against a team that Hail Maryed them in October?
Talking to the players in the crummy trailer they provide the media in East Lansing, I just sensed that if UW got another shot at MSU that the Badgers wouldn't drop the ball. Yes, Michigan State is playing with a chip on its shoulder after UW was picked over them for the Rose Bowl last season. When two teams are playing with a chip on a neutral field, always pick the better overall or hotter team. I believe that to be Wisconsin.
Over the last two seasons, Michigan State is 8-0 in games decided by 10 points or less, including 3-0 in 2011. I don't think it will be that close.
Besides, how cool would it be to have Bielema hoisting the trophy with Brewster begrudgingly having to interview him about his team's awesomeness? It's a picture that would hang in Bielema's office for eternity. I think he'll get that photo-op.
Wisconsin 37, Michigan State 27
Straight up: 9-3
Against the Spread: 6-6
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