The Big Ten Championship is finally here! But, who had it being against No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 5 Michigan State? Well, the 46th meeting between these two teams will practically be a quarterfinal playoff game, with the winner being in prime position for a spot in either the Cotton or Orange Bowl semifinal.
Unlike last year, the reigning Big Ten Champions Ohio State are out, as their loss to Michigan State on Nov. 21 was the tiebreaker, giving the Buckeyes the unwanted bye during championship week.
Iowa’s path was decidedly less nerve racking, as they cruised to an undefeated conference regular season (8-0) for the second time under Kirk Ferentz — and the first time since the Orange Bowl campaign of 2002.
Storylines (and some fun facts)
This is as close as you will get to a playoff game without it actually being a playoff game. Michigan State has been playing with a playoff mentality after their heartbreaking loss at Nebraska in early November. Last-second heroics by Michael Geiger — a 41-yard field goal against a swirling wind — lifted the Spartans against the then-No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, and ultimately put the Spartans in the driver seat of the Big Ten East.
For MSU, this is their second appearance in three years in the Big Ten Championship; for Iowa, this is their first appearance in Indianapolis with the conference title on the line.
Sparty has been attracting a lot of attention this season. ESPN’s College Gameday will visit an MSU game for the fourth time in 13 games this year. That’s tied for the most in one season with Alabama (2008), Ohio State (2006), and Oklahoma (2000). Both the 2006 Buckeyes and 2000 Sooners reached the National Championship game.
The last time Gameday visited a top five Big Ten showdown: 2006, when No. 1 Ohio State played No. 2 Michigan in the “Game of the Century”
The Hawkeyes, however, are 12-0 for the first time in school history. Also keeping up with the theme of being undefeated, quarterback C.J. Beathard is 13-0 as a starter, and is 9-0 in Big Ten play.
For Ferentz, he’s got the Hawkeyes on the brink of their first outright Big Ten crown since 1985.
Iowa holds a slim all-time series lead (23-20-2) against Michigan State. However, the series is tied at 2-2 over the last four meetings.
The Iowa Hawkeyes have the NCAA leader in interceptions, Desmond King, anchoring the defense. King has snagged eight passes this season, so look for Spartans quarterback Connor Cook to avoid passing in the same vicinity as King. Also, King is the primary kick returner for the Hawkeyes, coming in as the No. 2 returner in the Big Ten (25.6 yards).
Michigan State brings the key statistic of being the No. 1 team in the Big Ten on third down conversions. At .506, the Spartans also rank in the top-10 nationally when the down marker hits ‘3’.
If you were looking for some breakout rushing attacks in this game, you have come to the wrong place. Both teams rank in the top-20 nationally on rush defense. Sparty gives up 118.2 (16th nationally) yards per game, while the Hawkeyes surrender 110.0 (sixth nationally)
For Michigan State:
Offense: LJ Scott (RB) – While running will be tough, it’s the short yardage situations that will matter. The Spartans have the quartet of Gerald Holmes, Trevon Pendleton, Madre London, and Scott to help move the chains. Scott was the difference maker on MSU’s final drive against Ohio State. Expect him to be the fresh legs Sparty needs late.
Defense: Shilique Calhoun (DE) – Putting pressure on Beathard will be instrumental in stopping the Hawkeyes’ conference champion aspirations. Calhoun has 8.5 sacks on the season, but forcing Beathard out of the pocket and hurrying his decisions may prove to be more valuable.
Offense: C.J. Beathard (QB) – He is the obvious choice for Iowa as their key player in this game. If the Spartan defense brings the same intensity as they did against Ohio State’s rush attack, then LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri could have problems moving the ball on the ground for the Ferentz-coached squad. Passing is what Iowa needs to do if they want to win. A lights-out performance by Beathard is the remedy to defeating the Spartans (and booking a trip to either Arlington, Texas or Miami, Fla. for at least one more game).
Defense: Desmond King (DB/Return) – Surprise, surprise! Starting drives will be a big factor in helping Beathard and the offense. King will need to field good returns on special teams, as well as prevent the Spartan passing attack from taking flight. Cook will try and hit Aaron Burbridge or Macgarret Kings Jr.; it will be King’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. If King can collect an interception (or have a few pass breakups) to end Spartan drives, the Hawkeyes should have no problem controlling the tempo of the game.
Mark Dantonio and his Spartans have played in dramatic games since he arrived in East Lansing. Expect more dramatics on Saturday.
This game has the makings to be a last-one-with-the-ball-wins kind of contest. Sparty’s depth at the running game will be a huge advantage the longer this game drags out. Iowa will give the Spartans everything they have, and will probably open up with a lead behind the quarterbacking of Beathard.
Michigan State has been known to lose the one or two games that take the team out of the national championship hunt. This year, that won’t happen.
Final Score: Michigan State 34 — Iowa 26
It’ll be Michigan State representing the Big Ten in the playoffs