BOULDER, Colo. – There are only two weeks left in the Big Ten Universities season, and the race to the Championship game is in full swing. Michigan and Wisconsin find themselves in the mix of getting a spot in the Championship game, but first will have to win their Halloween matches this weekend. For those out of the race, these last two weeks will provide a chance to gain some extra wins and garner some confidence heading into the spring.
Minnesota vs. Purdue
Purdue and Minnesota both played Illinois in their previous matches. The difference is that Purdue was able to pull out a win with a try in the final minute, whereas Minnesota wasn’t able to play well defensively and let the Fighting Illini run away with a 57-20 victory.
This season has been a struggle for both of these sides, but these last few weeks welcomed a more favorable schedule for each. Minnesota has gone 0-4 so far, including crushing losses to Wisconsin and Michigan, and has had no luck stopping opposing offenses all season. Their offense hasn’t been too hot so far, either, putting up a conference-low 30 points. Twenty of those points came in their last match, and the Gophers hope to continue that scoring against Purdue.
The Boilermakers will be looking to keep their momentum rolling through this weekend after their last-minute win over Illinois. To do that, they will need another great game by Mark O’Brien. O’Brien scored 22 of the Boilermakers’ 27 points in their win over Illinois, including the last-minute try and conversion to put Purdue ahead.
Minnesota needs to step up on defense. If the Gophers’ young squad can improve on its shaky outings so far this season, it has a chance. The Boilermakers will need to be better in the first half to be successful. They had to come back in the second half to beat Illinois, so if the Boilermakers are able to put an entire 80-minute game together, they can be successful. This will be the most even match these two sides have played so far this season, so watch for some close competition.
No. 12 Wisconsin vs. Michigan State
This match has some heavy implications for Wisconsin. After ending its last match with a tie to Ohio State, Wisconsin needs to add another win to its resume to become even with the Buckeyes in the standings. In order to that, the Badgers will need to beat the Spartans.
Michigan State started off the season with a dominant win against Minnesota and a close loss to Michigan, but has dropped its last two decisions to Ohio State and Indiana. This will be the Spartans’ fourth game in a row against a Canterbury D1A Top 20 opponent, so they know what challenge awaits them; they just need to face it head on.
Wisconsin has one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, allowing only 42 on the season, the lowest in the conference. That will be its biggest strength going into these final two games, as the Badgers will need to first beat Michigan State and then Indiana, the highest scoring team in the Big Ten.
Michael VanderLaan and Michael Gieselman will need to continue to score tries for the Spartans. Their two highest scorers, Vanderlaan hasn’t been able to find the try zone since week two, and Gieselman’s only tries came against Ohio State. The Spartans’ offense will have a big challenge this weekend, but those are the guys that need to be able to dot it down.
Wisconsin needs to get back to using Hunter and Tyler Crass after not utilizing them in its tie with Ohio State. The Buckeyes were able to shut down the twins, which was a big reason the game ended how it did. Those two will need to be reincorporated into the scoring to help the strong back line of the Badgers.
Illinois vs. No. 20 Michigan
Illinois could have been ahead of Michigan in points if it won its last match, but instead the Illini got upset by Purdue, and will now be playing to ruin Michigan’s chance at the Championship match.
Michigan has to win this match, and it is hoping a bonus point will keep its championship hopes alive.
“We are aware of what is at stake but we also know that we put ourselves in this situation,” said Michigan Head Coach Brandon Sparks. “We need to be constantly working to improve our weaknesses and building on our strengths so we can still be within striking distance of the Championship game as we come down the stretch.”
Since losing to Indiana in week two, the Wolverines have come back with dominating wins over Minnesota and Iowa. Michigan has gotten healthy since its lone loss, in which it had six starters watching from the sideline, as well as losing its wings and full back in the first half. Those players are all back, healthy, and ready for the team’s final stretch.
Illinois will likely be out for blood after its loss to Purdue. It will need to be more defensively sound than it was against Purdue, and will have to play a better second half. The Fighting Illini will also need to stop a good Wolverine back line, which includes left wing Matthew Kasten, who has six tries on the season.
Michigan has a lot at stake over these next two games. Some could see the Wolverines overlooking Illinois, but don’t count on that.
“We’re 100% focused on Illinois,” said Sparks. “We have to be. Everything is too close for anyone to not be focused on the immediate task in front of them.”