Photos courtesy of MCT
Ohio State football won’t be participating Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, but the Buckeyes are quite familiar with the teams playing in the conference’s inaugural title game.
The game will pit No. 11 Michigan State against No. 15 Wisconsin, two teams that passed through Ohio Stadium on their respective paths to a chance at Big Ten glory.
The Spartans (10-2) visited the ‘Shoe on Oct. 1, and emerged with a 10-7 victory. A 33-yard touchdown pass from MSU senior quarterback Kirk Cousins to senior receiver B.J. Cunningham midway through the first quarter put the Spartans up early, 7-0. A field goal in the fourth quarter by junior Dan Conroy proved to be the deciding score for the Spartans.
After the game, MSU coach Mark Dantonio called the victory against the Buckeyes a big win for his program.
“We came down here with an ideal — on a mission,” Dantonio said. “(OSU was) the only team we had not beaten in this conference since coming here as a (coaching) staff, so that was a big win for this program.”
The Spartans won six of their remaining seven games to clinch a trip to Saturday’s championship showdown.
Wisconsin (10-2) did not fare as well when they visited the ‘Shoe Oct. 29.
After leading for most of the second half, the Buckeyes fell behind the then-No. 12-ranked Badgers, 29-26, on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Wisconsin senior quarterback Russell Wilson to sophomore receiver Jared Abbrederis with 1:18 remaining in regulation. With 20 seconds remaining in the game, though, freshman quarterback Braxton Miller found classmate and receiver Devin Smith for a shocking, game-winning score. The Buckeyes won the game, 33-29, and fans stormed the field and celebrated as the team improved to 5-3 on the season and 2-2 in the Big Ten.
Badgers’ junior linebacker Mike Taylor said the message in the Wisconsin locker room after the game was that he and his teammates would need to come back and focus on their remaining games.
“The game’s over,” Taylor said. “We’ve just got to move on.”
And move on they did — to Saturday’s championship game.
The Buckeyes were in control of their destiny in the Big Ten Leaders Division after the upset win against the Badgers, but finished the season with three consecutive losses to Purdue, Penn State and Michigan to fall out of contention. Wisconsin won its remaining games to clinch the division title and a berth to the title game.
The Spartans and Badgers met on Oct. 22, in East Lansing, Mich. That contest was settled on a Hail Mary pass by Cousins, which senior wide receiver Keith Nichol caught as time expired to give the Spartans a 37-31 win.
With a chance at Big Ten history and an invitation to the Rose Bowl on the line, the stakes will be raised Saturday. Both coaches agreed that the two best teams made it to the conference’s new, grand stage.
“The championship game, obviously, I feel like clearly the two best teams are participating in that, and it’s an opportunity, obviously, to move on and go to the Rose Bowl,” Dantonio said at a Tuesday press conference. “That’s a tremendous opportunity and one that we’ve worked for since, really, last February since the end of our last bowl season.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he views the game against MSU as a chance to cement the reputation of his program among Big Ten schools.
“Our kids are very excited,” Bielema said. “We did a lot of different studies, but over the last 15 years we’ve won right there or just at as many games as anybody in the Big Ten conference. Over the last three years … nobody in our conference has won as many games as Wisconsin has. So, to me we’re already there.
“The more news we can get out there, the better.”
The game figures to be a tight contest as the Wilson-led Wisconsin offense, ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in total offense, will battle MSU’s defense, ranked No. 1 in the conference.
“I think it’s exciting that Michigan State and Wisconsin — who I feel are the two best teams in the conference this year — get to play in the championship game,” Bielema said. “Hopefully, it’s going to be a great opportunity and a great showing.”
Saturday’s game between Badgers and Spartans kicks off at 8:17 p.m. The game will be televised nationally on FOX.