Dec. 1, 2015
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By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game pitting the University of Iowa against Michigan State may be just another game on the schedule, but it carries a little more significance.
The No. 3/4 Hawkeyes will battle the fifth-ranked Spartans in front of a sellout crowd of 66,700 in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with the Amos Alonzo Stagg Championship Trophy on the line.
The contest is also a de facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal game. Iowa was No. 4 in Nov. 24 CFP rankings; Michigan State was fifth.
“It’s important, but it’s another game,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday during a news conference in the All-American Room of the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center.
“We’re treating it like any other game, trying to put a good plan in place. The staff has done a great job of that all season long and our players are doing a great job of absorbing it.”
“We’re probably the team that’s not supposed to be there. So let’s go cut it loose and see what happens. What’s going to decide the game is who plays best, not all the other stuff, so that’s what we have to focus on.”
UI head coach Kirk Ferentz
The Spartans are making their third Big Ten Championship Game appearance in five seasons. Michigan State wrapped up its 11th victory, defeating Penn State, 55-16, on Nov. 28. It was Michigan State’s fifth 11-win season in six years.
“This is the best team we’ve played all season,” said Ferentz. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Ferentz says the last two weeks illustrates the success of the Spartan program.
“They went into Columbus two weeks ago without their starting quarterback and the way they won that football game was impressive,” Ferentz said of Michigan State’s 17-14 road win at No. 2 Ohio State — a win that ended the Buckeyes’ 23-game winning streak.
“Then the way they came back last week (in the win over Penn State); the quarterback (Connor Cook) was back and they looked like a well-rounded, dynamic football team.”
Iowa is 3-3 against Michigan State in its last six meetings. The Hawkeyes won 19-16 in double overtime in 2012; the Spartans won, 26-14, in 2013. Saturday’s game is the first meeting as top-five teams.
Ferentz knows the Hawkeyes will take a punch. It is how Iowa answers that will determine the game’s result.
“They’re going to make plays,” he said. “They’re going to make plays offensively, defensively, and on special teams. It’s how we respond that is going to dictate the success we have.
“That’s the moral of the story and it has been that way all season. I said this last week, but the Illinois State game was a big game for us. That was an important game, and we have kind of looked at each one the same way. Hopefully we can do that Saturday.”
To an extent, Ferentz says the Hawkeyes are playing with house money. Iowa is in uncharted water playing in its first Big Ten Championship game.
“We’re probably the team that’s not supposed to be there,” said Ferentz. “So let’s go cut it loose and see what happens. What’s going to decide the game is who plays best, not all the other stuff, so that’s what we have to focus on.”
Ferentz is hopeful Iowa’s defense will have the services of sophomore linebacker Ben Niemann (concussion) and senior defensive end Nate Meier (leg injury). He said junior LeShun Daniels, Jr., is healthy, and sophomore Akrum Wadley has fresh legs.
“We may need everybody,” said Ferentz of the running backs.
FOX will televise the Big Ten Championship Game beginning at 7:17 p.m. (CT). Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, and Molly McGrath will be on the call.