Wisconsin is returning to the Big Ten championship game. That was expected.
The Badgers made it despite starting the season 3-2, firing an assistant coach after two games and not winning the Leaders’ Division title.
Now who would’ve anticipated that?
The defending conference champion survived a tumultuous regular season, of sorts, to advance to Indianapolis for the second consecutive season thanks to a 62-14 blowout victory against Indiana last week.
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It will meet either Nebraska or Michigan on Dec. 1 for the league crown. The Huskers hold a one-game edge against the Wolverines with two weeks remaining.
“Our guys know that the only way to get [to Indianapolis] is to take things one game, one day at a time,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said.
Bielema created shock-waves throughout the Midwest just two weeks into the season when he fired former offensive line coach Mike Markuson following a 10-7 loss — in what was considered an upset at the time — at Oregon State. Three weeks later, the Badgers blew a double-digit second half lead in a loss at Nebraska, dropping them to 3-2 overall and 0-1 to start conference play. But four wins in their next five games saved the season and punched Wisconsin’s ticket to Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I give our guys a lot of credit because a lot of times people would let go of the rope or back away from the things that are in front of them,” Bielema said. “But our guys have just charged ahead at full speed.”
Wisconsin finishes out the regular season against a pair of division teams that couldn’t qualify for the league title game. Both Ohio State and Penn State’s postseason inelgibility has allowed the Red and White the opportunity to defend their crown next month.
Bielema knew his team caught a break this season with the division’s top two teams being out of the league title hunt and pointed out how he wanted his squad to prove itself over the final pair of dates that they aren’t the third-best team in the division.
“We’ll celebrate this one, but we have two very important games ahead of us with Ohio State and Penn State,” Bielema said. “[The Buckeyes] are undefeated and could still win the Leaders Division title, so it’s a big deal for us.”
Still, the head Badger took a moment to give his team some long-awaited kudos. After all, the fact that his crew accomplished its preseason goal despite a roller-coaster ride of a season showed how much moxy the 2012 Badgers really have.
“I know our record or ranking may not be as high as it was in year’s past, but we’re a really good football team,” Bielema said. “The character of this room showed [Saturday].”
Illinois (2-8, 0-6 Big Ten)
• The Illini took a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter before allowing Minnesota to rattle off 17 unanswered points in a 17-3 loss to the Gophers last week. The offense didn’t have a horrible day — posting 276 total yards — but the early field goal was all the unit could muster on the afternoon.
• Illinois fans can take solace in the fact that only two weeks remain in the regular season. The Illini have been bad in conference play, getting outscored 211-63 in eight league games. Amazingly, the Blue and Orange can jump out of the Leaders Division cellar with a home victory this week against one-win Purdue before heading to in-state rival Northwestern to close 2012.
Next Game: vs. Purdue Nov. 17
Indiana (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten)
• The Hoosiers fell behind 17-0 early in the second quarter, and were never competitive in a 62-14 whipping at the hands of Wisconsin last week. Indiana held the ball for a measly 20:33 and turned the ball over three times, two of them interceptions courtesy of sophomore quarterback Chameron Coffman who accounted for 233 of the team’s 294 total yards on the day.
• Indiana failed to show up in a game that could have put it in position to advance to the Big Ten championship game. Now it has to win out to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. Still, the four-win total is a step up for a Hoosier program that won only a single game last season, and they have a chance to finish strong with a trip to Happy Valley followed by a favorable match-up against rival Purdue.
Next Game: vs. Penn State Nov. 17
Iowa (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten)
• The Hawkeyes have seemingly regressed as the season went on, evidenced by a 27-24 home loss to previously winless-in-league-play Purdue last week. Iowa was dominated on both sides of the ball, getting out gained 490-264 on an afternoon when it never held the lead. The team has now lost four consecutive contests.
• The Black and Gold opened conference play 2-0 before free falling in the last four weeks, including back-to-back losses to Indiana and the Boilermakers. Iowa is in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2007, which incidentally was the last time the team had lost four conecutive games. The Hawkeyes must win at Michigan and vs. Nebraska to avoid a losing year.
Next Game: at Michigan Nov. 17
Michigan (7-3, 5-1 Big Ten))
• Backup quarterback Devin Gardner’s 1-yard touchdown run in the first overtime completed an improbable come-from-behind 38-31 victory against Northwestern last week. Gardner hit senior reciever Roy Roundtree on a 53-yard pass with two seconds left to set up a game-tying 26-yard field goal on the final play of regulation before the Wolverines won it in the extra period.
• Gardner has been brilliant in relief of injured senior signal-caller Denard Robinson, throwing for 520 yards and four touchdowns in the last two weeks combined. The win helped Michigan stay alive in the Legends Division race with two games remaining. The Maize and Blue need a Nebraska loss to open the door for a trip to Indianapolis.
Next Game: vs. Iowa Nov. 17
Michigan State (5-5, 2-4 Big Ten)
• The Spartans are fresh off a much-needed bye week following a heartbreaking 28-24 home loss to Nebraska on Nov. 3. The loss effectively ended Michigan State’s Big Ten title hopes and leaves the team heading into the final two weeks of the season scrambling for a victory and bowl eligibility.
• Michigan State has lost three consecutive divisional games and will have to turn that around quickly as it closes the season with divisional contests against Northwestern and Minnesota. The Spartans will seek bowl eligibility when the Wildcats invade East Lansing this week in a game that will go a long way in determining the postseason destination for both squads.
Next Game: vs. Northwestern Nov. 17
Minnesota (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten)
• The Gophers ensured a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2009 with a 17-3 victory at Illinois last week. Sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood was dominant, rushing for 152 yards and two touchdowns on a day when freshman quarterback Philip Nelson struggled by passing for only 78 yards on nine completions.
• After opening conference play 0-3, head coach Jerry Kill has rallied his troops to wins in two of their past three games. The Gophers are in the unfamiliar spot of looking to improve their bowl game position in the final two weeks, starting with a trip to Nebraska before hosting Michigan State.
Next Game: at Nebraska Nov. 17
Nebraska (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten)
• The Cornhuskers trailed 20-6 at halftime before pulling off yet another second-half comeback, outscoring Penn State 26-3 in a 32-23 victory last week. Nebraska now has four double-digit comebacks in conference play this season as well as prevailing from a nine-point deficit to defeat Michigan State on Nov. 3.
• The Cornhuskers are closing in on the Legends Division title and can clinch a trip to Indianapolis this week with a victory coupled with a Michigan loss. Nebraska has a one-game lead with two remaining and the road looks to be rather easy sailing with Minnesota visiting Lincoln this week before the Huskers head to Iowa City to close the season.
Next Game: vs. Minnesota Nov. 17
Northwestern (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten)
• The Wildcats held a three-point lead and the ball with under 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, but somehow allowed the lead to slip away in a crushing 38-31 overtime loss to Michigan last week. Northwestern failed to run the clock out and punted to the Wolverines, who tied the game on the final play of regulation before prevailing in extra time.
• The 2012 season will go down as a year of “what-ifs” for the Purple after blowing late leads to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. The end result leaves the Cats out of the conference title picture entering the final two weeks of the season. This week’s date with Michigan State will determine much about the postseason landing spot for both teams.
Next Game: at Michigan State Nov. 17
Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten)
• The Buckeyes will emerge from their bye week just a pair of victories away from completing a perfect regular season. Ohio State moved to 10-0 with a 52-22 blowout of Illinois on Nov. 3.
• Though ineligible for the conference championship, Ohio State can still claim the championship of the Leaders Division with a victory this week at Wisconsin.
Next Game: at Wisconsin Nov. 17
Penn State (6-4, 4-2 Big Ten)
• The Nittany Lions were in control at Nebraska, leading 20-6 at halftime before succumbing to yet another Cornhusker rally in a 32-23 defeat. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin had an off day, completing only 18 of 37 passes for 240 yards, a touchdown and an interception in his team’s second loss in three games following a five-game winning streak.
• Penn State’s defense looked stellar through three initial conference games, but the unit has allowed a combined 67 points in losses to Ohio State and Nebraska in the last three weeks. The Nittany Lions have still overachieved compared to most expectations, and now close their emotional season with back-to-back home dates against Indiana and Wisconsin.
Next Game: vs. Indiana Nov. 17
Purdue (4-6, 1-5 Big Ten)
• Freshman place-kicker Paul Griggs nailed a 44-yard field goal as time expired to stun Iowa 27-24 and snap a five-game losing streak. The Boilermakers dominated the game from the onset, out-gaining the Hawkeyes 490-264. A trio of turnovers allowed Iowa to hang around before Purdue prevailed on the game’s final play.
• The unlikely victory kept the Boilers’ postseason pulse beating for at least one more week. Purdue draws a favorable matchup this week when it heads to Illinois to face the 2-8 Illini before hosting Indiana to close the year. If it is victorious in both contests, Purdue will advance to a bowl game after starting league play winless through five matchups.
Next Game: at Illinois Nov. 10
Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten)
• Senior running back Montee Ball and junior position-mate James White combined to rush for 359 yards and five touchdowns as the Badgers demolished Indiana 62-14 on the road last week. Ball scored three of the tandem’s touchdowns, moving him into second place on the all-time FBS touchdown list with 74 scores. He now trails former Miami (Ohio) running-back Travis Prentice by one for the all-time lead.
• The Badgers have now clinched a return trip to the Big Ten championship game thanks to Ohio State and Penn State’s ineligibility. Wisconsin plays both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions in the final two weeks of the regular season in preparation for a date with the Legends’ Division winner in Indianapolis on Dec. 1.
Next Game: vs. Ohio State Nov. 17
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