The last time the Michigan State Spartan football team played in Pasadena was when they won the 74th Rose Bowl on January 1, 1988. As they were celebrating that 20-17 victory over USC, Spartan fans couldn’t have imagined that the player that would possibly lead them back to the Rose Bowl wasn’t even born yet. 232 days later, on August 19, 1988, MaryAnn Cousins – with her husband, Don – gave birth to Kirk Cousins. Cousins would follow a very unique path to finally get to the place where he could possibly lead this MSU team to the 98th Rose Bowl, coming from literally out of nowhere at Holland Christian High School.
When Cousins was choosing between MAC offers from Toledo and Western Michigan in January of his senior season, he was afforded the opportunity to come to the Michigan State campus and try to woo the new coaching staff. While he didn’t have the physical attributes that most prominent quarterbacks have, he did have the intangibles that caught new head coach Mark Dantonio’s eye. Dantonio had just arrived from Cincinnati and hadn’t had success landing a quarterback. Cousins didn’t care that he was nowhere near MSU’s first choice. He was just happy to be given a chance to earn his way by convincing Coach Dantonio that what he lacked in measurables, he would make up for in his intangibles.
And boy has he done just that, leading this MSU football team to its modern-times glory days, with back-to-back Big Ten Championships within sight. One of Cousins’ strengths – and one of the reasons why MSU is playing in this game this weekend – is his ability to “break down walls and build chemistry” in the locker room. Don’t underestimate that. Moneyball stat guys say that Wisconsin will run away with this game. And it’s possible that they will. But it’s not probable. Those intangibles can’t be measured but are extremely important in the game of football, especially collegiate football.
“There are 10 other guys on the field I am working together with. We work together as a unit,” Cousins said. “I think we are playing our best football right now. We’ve done a good job starting fast and taking care of the football.”
Cousins’ skills have improved and have allowed him to get to the point where he is more than just a game manager – Cousins is making plays to win games now. That’s what he did when he threw the game-winning pass against Wisconsin earlier this year, in the team’s first meeting. After heaving the pass that Keith Nichol hauled in at the goal line, Cousins made sure to find Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson after the game and said to him: “You’re a class act. You’re the real deal. I think we are going to see you guys again.” He was right.
Christmas will come early in Indianapolis when half of Lucas Oil Stadium fills with Michigan State Green and the other half fills with Wisconsin Red. It’s going to be an electric, bowl-like atmosphere in the heart of Big Ten country where 2 teams that each received a championship trophy last year (and didn’t have to give it back like Ohio State did) will settle it on the field this year, with the victor gaining an undisputed Big Ten Championship and a trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl.
In an interesting turn of fate, none of the four Big Ten traditional powerhouses (Michigan/Nebraska and Ohio State/Penn State) – that were slotted into separate divisions when the Big Ten expanded this year – were able to make it to the first Big Ten Championship game. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said today that Michigan State and Wisconsin are “the powerhouse teams of the Big Ten.” And he’s right – this game is definitely going to be played between the two best teams in the league this year.
While MSU would have already clinched the 2012 Rose Bowl berth after the win over Indiana under the old rules, they are perfectly fine with playing under the new rules to determine who gets to go. It might seem unfair that MSU has to beat Wisconsin twice to earn their spot, but Spartans everywhere should realize that the best team in the league should represent the Big Ten against the Pac 12 – and if that team is MSU then the Spartans should be able to beat Wisconsin in a neutral setting. If not, they don’t deserve to go.
Wisconsin lost a back-and-forth game at Spartan Stadium in October on a Hail Mary pass and followed that up with another loss to Ohio State on a similar-type play. But they didn’t give up. As Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson told his teammates after the Buckeye loss, “God gave us eyes in the front of our head to look forward. And that’s what we had to do.” And they did so. They won the rest of their games to put themselves in the position of being able to earn back-to-back trips to Pasadena. After the Buckeye loss, Wilson told his teammates to “forget all the noise and focus on playing the best football we can from here on out.” After leading his team in doing just that down the stretch, Wilson said today that he was “excited to have another chance” at MSU.
Wilson is his own story, having transferred with his last year of eligibility from North Carolina State to the Badger state. It didn’t take him too long to earn his teammates’ respect, as he was voted captain right away. How did he do that? He said he had to be himself. He wanted to be a part of something special and wanted to be a consistent teammate. His motto was to “be a great teammate every day.” He planned to be the first one at practice and the last one to leave while working his “butt off” during practice.
“That’s the way my parents raised me,” Wilson said today. “Always be a great person and a great teammate.”
That approach has allowed Wilson and his teammates to beat the odds after two early losses and make it to the first ever Big Ten Championship Game (or B1GFCG, as Twitter likes to call it).
“It’s a big stage,” Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said today. “It’s an honor to play in the first Big Ten Championship game.”
Ball said that the Badgers can’t afford any penalties and need to establish the run game so that they can then use play-action to make big plays through the air. He mentioned that MSU did a great job changing things up after Wisconsin had taken an early 14-0 lead in East Lansing. And we all know that Wisconsin also changed their plans after MSU seemingly had taken control of the game. Both teams learned how to overcome adversity in that game. And both teams used those lessons to get them back to this point.
Both teams will be motivated, that’s for sure.
“There will be plenty of motivating factors for both teams, regardless of the spread that is posted,” Cousins said when asked of Las Vegas odds-makers’ apparent disrespect for Michigan State. “I expect the environment to be electric. The Rose Bowl is on the line. There is so much riding on the game. We’ll be ready.”
Spartan senior defensive leader Trenton Robinson also addressed the media today, saying “We set these goals. We are where we want to be. Emotions are high. Everyone is excited. They play ‘pound’ football. That’s what they do. So do we. We’re very similar. Their defense is hard-nosed. And so is ours.”
He’s right – these teams are very similar. In Indianapolis this weekend, both teams will make adjustments from the first game and the team that will win this game will be the team that can make the most adjustments throughout the game as well. The skill levels of the players on the field seem very equal; this means that the team whose coaches make the best decisions will win this game. I am yet to see a single Spartan fan confident that MSU can pass the Wisconsin test twice this year. Well, here you go: MSU 27, Wisconsin 26.