INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Best Big Ten championship game ever.
OK, it was the inaugural, but from here on out, the challenge has been extended.
It’s going to take a monumentally tremendous battle royale with drop kicks from the top buckle and unmaskings galore to top Wisconsin’s 42-39 victory over Michigan State before 64,152 fans Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Spartans (10-3) beat Wisconsin (11-2) on a Hail Mary when the teams faced off Oct. 22 in East Lansing. If he tells the truth, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson pulled the exact same move on MSU.
When he lofted a fourth-and-6 pass towards wide receiver Jeff Duckworth’s general direction in the fourth quarter, he couldn’t have seen an open player. But he did underthrow it. The MSU defender tumbled past Duckworth, who gathered it in for a first down that eventually set up running back Montee Ball’s game-winning 7-yard rush.
“I just gave him a shot,” Wilson said. “It was a spectacular play.”
In what turned out to be a stormy season off the field for the Big Ten, the conference championship game pitted the conference’s two best teams in the season’s best game.
“Wow,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. Shhh, shhh, no more talking, Mr. Commissioner. You nailed it.
Ball rushed for 137 yards and scored four TDs (Nos. 35, 36, 37 and 38 this season). But within Ball’s stats is the tale of the game. The Spartans held Ball to just 32 yards after the first quarter.
Punch, counter punch.
Wilson, the game’s MVP, completed 17 of 24 for 187 yards and three TDs. He was certainly topped by Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, who completed 22 of 30 for 281 yards, a pick and three TDs.
Spartans wide receiver/special teams playmaker Keshawn Martin might’ve topped them all.
He caught nine passes for 115 yards, rushed for 26 and returned a punt to Wisconsin’s 3 with less than two minutes left.
But wait, no. Safety Isiah Lewis was called for running into UW punter Brad Nortman on a fourth-and-3. The 5-yard penalty gave Wisconsin a first down, the silver football trophy and the No. 15 Badgers’ second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl, where they’ll face No. 8 Oregon (11-2), the Pac-12 champions.
“I really didn’t think it was a penalty,” MSU wide receiver B.J. Cunningham said.
These two teams could play 10 times and split it down the middle.
“It looked like a flop. Threw the flag,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “I didn’t think he hit him. If he did, he just nicked him.”
The Martin play where he had a toe in bounds but the rest of his body was out of bounds was incredible in and of itself. The lateral (we’re getting there), the Ball-to-Wilson pass, the special teams excellence… 10 times and straight down the middle.
Ten times and you’d watch and relish every single one.
“I think our kids never stopped wavering in their faith,” UW coach Bret Bielema said. “They were tremendous over the course of the last four weeks.
“They came out today and they weren’t going to be denied. And to do it here, the first time ever in Indy.”
And then he finished with a bit of a Badger rebel yell, “Big Ten champs twice!”
The lateral happened in a back-and-forth first half that put up more numbers than some Big Ten offenses put up this season (not really, just felt like it).
It had a running back gain 105 yards and score two TDs (Ball), a running back pass to the quarterback for 32 yards (Ball to Russell Wilson) and a wide receiver lateral to another wide receiver before being pulled out of bounds (Keith Nichol to B.J. Cunningham).
Cunningham, who caught three TD passes, punctuated the lateral with a Superman dive that split two Wisconsin defenders and made it 22-21 with 10:21 left in the first half.
The game started with Ball, Ball, Ball and Bielema’s told-ya-so grin. The half ended with Michigan State moxie, Dantonio’s eyes glowing.
Body blow, body blow, uppercut. Counter, counter, counter. And that was just the first half, where the first punt didn’t come until 13:03 left in the second quarter.
The fact that the Big Ten picked Lucas Oil Stadium and its retractable roof for the Big Ten football championship raised eyebrows, but if a tightly executed, thrill-a-minute title game is the end product, turn on the applause sign.
The place wasn’t packed with people, but it was with talent, including the assistant coaches.
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi have been mentioned as possible candidates at Illinois.
If Chryst is throwing his name into any of the coaching searches, he might want to show more range than he did on the first drive. The script went Ball, Ball, Ball, Ball and Ball. Then, pass Nick Toon before one more Ball.
Then again, maybe that sequence showed prospective employers that Chryst is smart enough to stick with what works. No need for a magician when a running back will do.
Wilson completed the drive with a 3-yard TD pass to wide-open Duckworth (character in the game “Clue” or Badgers wideout?) for a 7-0 lead one Badger possession into the game.
It took Michigan State 3:13 to answer.
Running back Le’Veon Bell’s 26-yard burst to Wisconsin’s 33 set the table for Edwin Baker’s 8-yard scamper to tie it 7-7 with 6:44 left in the first quarter. Bell had four carries for 40 yards to spur the drive.
The ball went back to Ball and the Badgers and that was bad for Michigan State.
He rushed for 38 yards, including the final 6 for the TD (his 35th this season, 36 and 37 came later), and threw a pass back to Wilson for a 32-yard gain to MSU’s 9.
Michigan State fumbled the ensuing kick, and the Badgers and Ball delivered more blunt force trauma.
From MSU’s 24, Ball went between the tackles for 18 and then he took what looked like the same play the final 6 for a 21-7 Badgers’ lead with 3:12 left in the first quarter, the first quarter of the Ball.
Ball finished the first quarter with 13 carries for 105 yards, two TDs, a 32-yard pass completion and a probable trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Then came the second quarter.
The Spartans held serve. Cousins took a naked bootleg on a fourth-and-1 from UW’s 30 and found a wide-open Cunningham for an easy TD, pulling MSU within 21-14 with 14:55 left in the second quarter.
OK, Chryst had the Illinois job sewn up. If Narduzzi was going to make a bid, it had to be now.
And he did. The Spartans held Wisconsin to a three-and-out. This produced one of those things called punts. Yeah, remember those? They have them in the Big Ten. They really have them. Anyway, the first punt in the indoor Big Ten championship game came with 13:03 left in the second quarter.
The Spartans were in business.
The “how they did it” on this one was a bit unorthodox. Only seniors are authorized to make “heady” plays, and Nichol, a senior wide receiver, made the headiest. He caught a pass from Cousins and took it to the Badgers’ 6. Just before being pulled out of bounds by a UW defender, Nichol lateraled the ball to Cunningham. That tied the game, but wait . . .
No, the Spartans went for 2 and nailed it when holder Brad Sonntag took the snap and simply ran around the right end to make it 22-21 with 10:21 left before halftime.
Narduzzi’s defense forced two more punts out of Wisconsin. The Ball, Ball, Ball of the first quarter turned into Ball, incomplete pass and punt.
Ball went into the second quarter with 105 yards. He went to halftime with 107.
Cousins showed the senior calm that’s made him Big Ten MVP-caliber the last three seasons, completing passes of 28 and 17 yards to spark the Spartans’ eight-play, 84-yard drive capped by running back Le’Veon Bell’s 6-yard run.
What do you take away from the inaugural?
The fabulous playmaking? The defenses that ended up bruised but still counted? The flag at the end?
“It’ll be an instant classic, for sure,” Dantonio said.
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