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Hughes: For sake of Big Ten, Wisconsin can’t lose

first_imgThis coming Saturday night is a big, big, big one for No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 16 Michigan State.And for the rest of the Big Ten, Saturday’s game in East Lansing might be just as big as well. The last shred of respect for the conference is hanging in the balance.All throughout last year, the Big Ten was known as a top-heavy league, with teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State wedging themselves at the top of the podium for the conference crown (for now, we’ll just forget about the fact that two of those teams lost their bowl games while the third had to vacate its victory).From there, the talent level dropped a healthy amount to a disappointing team in Iowa and then pretty much plummeted from there.This year, it seemed like the Big Ten would have a similarly unequal distribution of talent at the top. Instead, it was worse than expected.After beginning the season ranked in or just outside the top 10 of the two major preseason polls, the Badgers, through six games, have done nearly everything right. They’ve outscored opponents 301-58 and put forth a strong Heisman candidate despite playing through a steady string of injuries, especially on defense.When you compare it to the rest of the league, you’d almost expect an Occupy Camp Randall campaign to spring up.So, if Wisconsin faltered Saturday, you can imagine the disappointment it would incur on the league as a whole if its only national title contender didn’t come as advertised.There are varying forms of disappointment all over the league already. For starters, Ohio State (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) was still expected to make noise this year with a rock-solid defense, but instead the Buckeyes look lost following continued rules violations and player suspensions.Nebraska holds a respectable record (5-1, 1-1), but seems to have been over-hyped in the preseason. Its defense played disappointing football all throughout the non-conference season and their conference games have been ugly as well.The Huskers were blown out of Madison 48-17 and found themselves down 27-6 in the third quarter a week later against the Buckeyes before waking up and coming back to win.To make matters worse, its second-team All-American defensive tackle, Jared Crick, is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.Michigan wasn’t fooling anybody before this past weekend either. Michigan State came into last Saturday’s game at No. 23 and was the first ranked opponent of the year for then-No. 11 Michigan and thumped the Wolverines 28-14.Illinois, however, became a source for optimism this year, rising as high as No. 16 in the rankings. But a home loss to unranked Ohio State on Saturday dropped the Illinoisans to No. 23 and raised more doubts as to whether they’re for real or not.Meanwhile, Penn State has sneakily entered the BCS rankings at No. 21, ahead of Illinois, thanks to tip-top defense that has allowed the sixth-fewest points in the nation. But when one considers that its defense has only faced one test so far (against Alabama) and that the offense is 96th in scoring, you wonder how long they’ll last in the polls.That leaves Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Spartans are plenty responsible for the early-season disrespect the Big Ten has faced thanks to their 31-13 loss to unranked Notre Dame in Week 3, and after their offense looked anemic a week later against OSU, many thought MSU was another Big Ten washout.But that’s changed somewhat after last week’s win over Michigan, though, as the Spartan ‘D’ is garnering some serious street cred.Ranking second in total defense and fourth in points allowed, the MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi added a dash of machismo following a game in which his presiding unit was flagged six times for unnecessary roughness. According to Andy Staples of SI.com, Narduzzi told reporters: “That’s what we try to do, 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness. I’m just happy it didn’t get called on every snap.”MSU safety Isaiah Lewis later added that his teammates on the defensive line are going to “hurt” UW quarterback Russell Wilson on Saturday.(I have to pause and point out that I think this kind of tough-guy language is a wonderful way to set up your team’s best unit for self-destruction. Again, the Spartans had six unnecessary roughness penalties against the Wolverines. In the game, defensive end William Gholston leaped on an already-tackled Denard Robinson, grabbed his facemask and purposefully twisted the helpless man’s neck. Later, Gholston threw a punch at another Wolverine. This kind of behavior, followed by boasting, is a fantastic way of guaranteeing officials to run a tight match the next time the Spartans play. In his article, Staples mentioned Narduzzi drew a distinction between“close calls” and “stupid penalties,” yet choosing the phrase “unnecessaryroughness” is curious. Given the shameful play by Gholston, I’m surprised Narduzzi would go on record afterwards approving roughness at all.)As the Legends Division’s sole undefeated team in conference play, Michigan State certainly has shed the feel of another washout, but the Big Ten can’t afford to have its only contender in Wisconsin fall to a team ranked in the mid-teens.Ranked sixth in the first BCS rankings, Wisconsin is short on respect itself thanks to a weak schedule, but the high-flying Badgers remain the main reason why the Big Ten has any respect at all for the moment.If Sparty wins Saturday, the main reaction won’t be to give Michigan State acclaim – it’ll be to cast out Wisconsin as another Big Ten dud, leaving the conference without a team worthy of being compared to anything the SEC or Big 12 have.Elliot is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you think the Big Ten’s image would be fine if Wisconsin lost to Michigan State? Tell him about it at [email protected] or tweet @BHeraldSports.last_img

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