Rematch: Badgers to face Spartans for Big 10 title
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has seen the highlight over and over, more times than he’d care to remember.
The deflected Hail Mary pass fell into the arms of Michigan State wide receiver Keith Nichol, who wrestled it over the goal line. After a replay review ruled in Michigan State’s favor, the Spartans were celebrating a wild last-second victory.
That loss, combined with a shockingly similar defeat at Ohio State the following week, erased Wisconsin from the national championship picture. But when No. 15 Wisconsin takes on No. 11 Michigan State in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the Badgers won’t be using revenge as their motivation.
”Michigan State earned that victory,” Bielema said. ”Obviously, they scored more points than we did and were able to execute at the end of the game in a way that gave them a victory. And our kids have to take that and learn from it.”
Instead of seeking revenge, Wisconsin players see Saturday’s game as a chance to continue what has been an impressive rebound from those two late collapses.
”We’re looking forward to it,” Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said after Saturday’s victory over Penn State. ”We were frustrated with the way that game ended. But we’re not going to overplay the revenge thing.”
For Michigan State, it’s a chance to go to the Rose Bowl after being shut out of the BCS last season.
”We felt like we were the odd man out, felt like we at the very least should have gone to a BCS game,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. ”We played a tough schedule. There were all those things that were documented or whatever, we talked about last year. So we were sort of the odd man out. But in retrospect, we didn’t play at that level when we had a chance to play in the Capital One bowl game, so that ended the discussion as far as I was concerned.”
Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) clinched the Big Ten Legends division early. Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) had to beat Penn State on Saturday to claim the Leaders division on a tiebreaker and secure a spot in the title game.
That means the Big Ten’s powerhouse programs – Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska – all will be watching from home Saturday.
”You can’t erase the history that those four schools have had,” Bielema said. ”But history is in history books. We try to focus on the now, what’s in the newspapers today. And I really respect and admire everything about what we’ve done here at Wisconsin, and the same thing could be said there at Michigan State.”
Dantonio said it’s natural for programs to fluctuate over the years, and he believes he has Michigan State on the upswing.
”Right now, Michigan State is moving in the direction that we want it to move,” Dantonio said. ”It’s not an end deal yet, I don’t think we’ve accomplished our ultimate goal yet. But we’re very, very close and we’re very excited about the opportunity to be able to do that.”
For the Big Ten, a rematch in conference play is something of a novelty.
”We’ve played them five times since we’ve been here, so we know each other, that’s for sure,” Dantonio said. ”We’ve played them every year, and now we’ll get to play them chance No. 6. We’ve won three out of the last four. I think that needs to be recognized by our players and it gives us confidence. We understand what we’re up against, the challenges that we face and we look forward to a great football game.”
And Dantonio said the frantic nature of the Oct. 22 victory over the Badgers showed him that neither team is likely to quit.
”Both teams have a way of hanging in there and continuing to play,” Dantonio said. ”To me, that’s impressive. It’s one thing to be a good football team when everything’s going well. When things don’t go so well and somebody has to make a play and you keep playing, those are the things that impress people.”
And both coaches expect the Big Ten title game to create a buzz, both nationally and in Indianapolis.
”I don’t think there’s a hotel room in town there in Indy,” Dantonio said. ”If there is, let me know, because I’ve got some people looking for them.”
Bielema is looking forward to the big stage.
”When we added Nebraska, I think there was no doubt in our mind that this was going to be a successful opportunity for our conference to showcase the two best teams over the course of the season, and I (think) the two best teams did get to Indianapolis,” Bielema said. ”I really have a lot of respect for many of the teams in our league, but Michigan State and ourselves got to this point. And there’s a buzz now.”