Just three or four weeks ago, it would have been difficult to foresee another sporting event on the Indiana University campus this weekend becoming more significant than tomorrow night's debut of the top-ranked IU basketball team. Amazingly, the confluence of strange circumstance and IU football's first Big Ten winning streak in half a decade have moved the Indiana-Wisconsin football to the top of the list.
Before we get to the game specifically, I think it is worth considering just how big a game this is for IU. This is the "new" Memorial Stadium's 53rd football season. Even by the less-than-elite standards of IU football, the team probably isn't among the top 20 IU teams that have called the place home. Still, by my rough count, this IU team becomes only the third to play a November home game with a trip to the Rose Bowl in its own hands. In 1967, the 6-0 Hoosiers began November with a 14-9 win over Wisconsin in Bloomington, and clinched a share of the Big Ten title with a 19-14 win over Purdue three weeks later. In 1987, IU was 4-1 in the Big Ten when they beat Illinois 34-22 in Bloomington to set up a battle for the Rose Bowl bid in East Lansing the next week, a game Michigan State won, of course. And that's it. The 1993 team entered November with its Rose Bowl hopes alive, but began the month with two road losses at OSU and PSU. So, while the 2012 Hoosiers are in no way reminiscent of the quality of the 1967 or 1987 teams, this squad joins that relatively short list. IU is playing a home game in November with everything still on the line. The circumstances are crazy, but we've been through enough that I'm not going to feel bad about it if the unthinkable happens.
But, of course, the Wisconsin Badgers are a formidable opponent. For those of us who followed Big Ten football in the early 1990s or before, it's still a bit strange to think of Wisconsin as a conference power, but they are and have been there pretty consistently for the last two decades. Since 1993, IU's beatdown of the Badgers in 2001 in Madison and the come-from-behind win in Bloomington in 2002 are the Hoosiers' only wins over UW. The 83-20 beatdown is well-remembered on both sides, and last year 59-7 romp wasn't much batter. One major difference, however, is the Badgers' uncertainty at quarterback. The starter tomorrow will be Curt Phillips, a fifth-year senior who has attempted 12 passes in his career, and hasn't completed a pass since 2009. As a freshman, he was an excellent runner, gaining 138 yards on 14 carries, but has had some major knee trouble since then. I'm not sure what it says about Phillips or Danny O'Brien, the Maryland transfer who began the season as the Badgers' starter, but that's what is going to happen. This would be a major concern for most teams, but most teams don't have Montee Ball. Ball, a notorious Hoosier killer over the years, already has broken the 1000 yard mark for the season, has scored 13 rushing TDs, and averages 4.7 yards per carry. Ball saw the first meaningful action of his career against IU in 2009, gaining 115 yards after John Clay left the game with a concussion. Eight of Ball's 68 career rushing TDs have come against IU. The Badgers' top receiver, by far, is Jared Abbrederis, but I'm sure their objective is to make sure that he and his counterparts don't matter at all.
On defense, look out for linebacker Chris Borland, who has 8.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks. The Badgers' leading tackler, linebacker Mike Taylor, has 11 tackles for loss. DE David Gilbert has 4 sacks and 7 TFL. Cornerback Devin Smith is the only Badger with 2 interceptions and has 10 deflections and 8 breakups. The Badger defense has played very well in recent weeks, but against the Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan State offenses. This strength-versus-strength matchup will be very interesting.
It is not difficult to imagine this game going any number of ways. As was discussed in the comments earlier this week, it would be very IU Football for all of the hype to deflate because of an epic beatdown, something that hasn't happened this year. On the other hand, seven-point underdogs win every week in college football, and IU has had enough bad luck that it's not greedy to expect it to even out someday. I think my most plausible guess is that IU will play admirably, but that Ball and the Badgers will be too much in the end. While I hope I am wrong...Wisconsin 31, Indiana 20.