Big Ten

Big Ten Championship Game preview: 10 things to know about Hawkeyes-Spartans

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Big Ten Championship Game preview: 10 things to know about Hawkeyes-Spartans

The undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes and the one-loss Michigan State Spartans meet in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night in Indianapolis.

Two seasons are on the line, and there's a lot going into this game on both sidelines.

Because it's the Big Ten title game, here are 10 big things to know about this weekend's tilt, airing at 7 p.m. on Fox.

1. The stakes are high

This one's pretty obvious.

With the kinds of seasons these two teams have had, they have placed themselves firmly in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

With the Hawkeyes ranked fourth and the Spartans ranked fifth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, there's virtually no scenario in which the winner of Saturday night's game would be left out of the sport's final four.

If Iowa wins, it'll be one of at most two undefeated conference champions. If Michigan State wins, it will have far and away the best collection of wins — four over top-16 teams — as well as a conference championship. No way there are four resumes out there better than either of those.

Thing is, as good a season as the loser would have put together, it's almost certain that the loser of this game will miss the Playoff.

Win and you're in. Lose and you're not.

[MORE BIG TEN: What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes]

2. Aaron Burbridge vs. Desmond King

Two of the best players in the conference will be competing head-to-head Saturday night.

Michigan State wideout Aaron Burbridge was named the Big Ten Receiver of the Year earlier this week. He leads the conference with 75 receptions and 1,158 receiving yards. He has seven touchdown catches this season and can do things like this:

But Burbridge will have a tough test going up against Iowa cornerback Desmond King, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year earlier this week. He leads the nation with eight interceptions and ranks third in the conference with 19 passes defended.

“Yeah, he leads the Big Ten in interceptions, and he's a good player," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "Looking at him, he's got some good size, he's got speed, everything you want in a cornerback. If there is anything that I would compare him to from guys that we've played, I think he's like (Will) Likely from Maryland, but he's just bigger. Likely is kind of smaller, has the speed, can break on balls, can break on practices, can break it up, you know, anytime he really wants to, and I see that in King, but King just has the size. Likely is 5-8 or 5-9, King is around 6-1, 6-2, so he's a relatively bigger corner. We have great receivers, so we are looking forward to the match-up, and I would say for sure looking at their defense, Iowa's defense, I think their secondary is for sure their strong point, their strong suit.”

It's going to be a terrific one-on-one matchup. If King gets the better of Burbridge, it could throw the Spartans' offense out of whack without a safety valve for Cook. If Burbridge gets the better of King, it could mean a lot of points in a hurry for Michigan State.

[MORE BIG TEN: With Big Ten title game win, Spartans could reach peak of the mountain]

3. Iowa's three-headed running back monster

Michigan State's defense will have its hands full trying to stop not one, not two but three Iowa running backs, any of whom could go off at any minute — and have this season.

Jordan Canzeri leads the way with 964 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on 176 carries this season. He has had five 100-yard games, including a 256-yard day against Illinois and a four-touchdown afternoon against North Texas.

LeShun Daniels has gained 592 and scored eight touchdowns on 127 carries. He has had a pair of 100-yard games, including a 195-yard, three-touchdown performance against Minnesota.

And Akrum Wadley has piled up 449 yards and scored seven touchdowns on just 69 carries. He's twice gone over 100 yards, including a mammoth 204-yard, four-touchdown outing against Northwestern.

Which of these guys will get the majority of the carries is unknown. Kirk Ferentz tends to go with the hot hand. But certainly all three are capable of big performances.

Iowa is the Big Ten's third-best rushing team, averaging 203.7 rush yards a game. Michigan State boasts the league's fifth-best rushing defense, allowing 118.2 rush yards per game. And the Spartans showed they can slow down the best, holding Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott to 33 yards just two weeks ago.

[MORE BIG TEN: What Terps get in new head coach D.J. Durkin]

4. Another big moment for Connor Cook

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is no stranger to big games.

In 2013, he led the Spartans to a Big Ten Championship Game win over Ohio State and a Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Last season, he led a Cotton Bowl win over Baylor. Back on the big stage is where Cook fares best, and Michigan State's all-time winningest quarterback has a couple more shots at shining when the lights are brightest, starting with Saturday night.

Cook was the conference's best quarterback this season — and he has the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year award to prove it — throwing for 2,730 yards and 24 touchdowns, pitching just four interceptions.

His health has been a question in recent weeks, and he sat out of Michigan State's big win over Ohio State with a shoulder injury. But he returned in expert fashion last weekend, carving up Penn State for 248 yards and three touchdowns.

Iowa's defense has been good at keeping opponents off the scoreboard and stopping the run, but they're more vulnerable against the pass, perhaps surprising because that secondary boasts Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Desmond King. But Cook, who's gone over 300 passing yards in four games this season, could exploit a Hawkeye defense that ranks just eighth in the conference, allowing 221.7 pass yards a game.

[MORE BIG TEN: Report: Rutgers looking at Buckeyes DC Chris Ash for head-coaching gig]

5. How big are C.J. Beathard's shoulders?

Iowa's offensive strength has been its running game, and with a cadre of talented backs, the Hawkeyes could again find success on the ground Saturday.

But Michigan State has been better at stopping the run than it's been at stopping the pass. If a talented Spartan front manages to slow down the Hawkeye rushing attack, can quarterback C.J. Beathard shoulder the load?

There's no doubt Beathard's been great this season. He's thrown for 2,354 yards and 14 touchdowns, throwing just three interceptions. But thanks to the balance in the Iowa offense, he hasn't had to win games on his own, like Cook has.

If the Hawkeyes can keep things balanced in successful fashion, then that's great for them. But if the game leans toward a more pass-heavy necessity, it'll be interesting to see if Beathard can take the game over.

Making that more possible will be that aforementioned Spartan secondary, which has allowed 231 pass yards a game this season.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes, Spartans, Buckeyes go 4, 5, 6 in College Football Playoff rankings]

6. Getting to the quarterbacks

Both Iowa and Michigan State boast some of the best pass-rushers in the Big Ten.

Hawkeyes defensive end Nate Meier is tied for 10th in the conference with 6.5 sacks, while Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun ranks sixth with 8.5 sacks and defensive tackle Malik McDowell ranks 19th with 4.5 sacks.

Any one of those guys can cause problems for Cook and Beathard, but who will do the most damage?

The Spartans have the edge with multiple guys who can wreak havoc in the backfield. Calhoun and McDowell both show up on the top-20 list in the Big Ten when it comes to tackles for loss, too. Plus, those guys are freakish athletes. Calhoun has been terrorizing opposing QBs for three years now and has scored several defensive touchdowns in his career. McDowell got into the end zone on an interception return last week against Penn State. So big plays are the norm for the Michigan State front.

Don't discount Meier, who's a sack monster and is backed by some pretty talented linebackers. But the Iowa defensive line is down Drew Ott, another sack master who went down with an injury earlier this year. The Hawkeyes miss him, too, ranking just 12th in the conference when it comes to sacks.

[MORE BIG TEN: Buckeyes' Ezekiel Elliott named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year]

7. Michigan State's reliable runners

Spartan running backs Gerald Holmes and LJ Scott aren't on the top of any rushing leaderboards, but the duo has been reliable this season.

They particularly stepped up in big ways with Cook sidelined during the win over Ohio State, combining to rush for 113 yards.

Holmes and Scott have combined for 18 touchdowns this season, taking the baton from Madre London, the freshman who was off to a good start before missing time and receiving limited carries of late. All in all, the three have combined for 1,568 rushing yards this season.

Holmes has been the man of late, going for 329 yards over the past four games.

Iowa has a terrific rushing defense, second in the Big Ten and sixth in the country, and while Michigan State ranks just eighth in the league in rushing offense, Holmes and Scott provide a strong complement to Cook's success through the air and the Spartans remain committed to the run.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes' Kirk Ferentz named Big Ten Coach of the Year]

8. #CollegeKickers?

If this game is a tight one, don't necessarily expect a clutch kick to win it.

Both Michigan State's Michael Geiger and Iowa's Marshall Koehn have had their struggles this season.

Geiger is just 9-for-14 on field-goal attempts, while Koehn is 13-for-17. Geiger has missed two extra points, while Koehn has missed five.

Of course, both guys have had their huge moments. It was Geiger's kick that went through from 41 yards out as time expired to give the Spartans a win over Ohio State. And Koehn's massive 57-yard boot gave the Hawkeyes a walk-off win over Pitt earlier this season.

So they have the clutch gene in them. But they also have occasional bouts of #CollegeKickers.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hawkeyes gear right here]

9. Iowa's practice game

Earlier this season, Iowa faced Pitt, and the Panthers came closer than anyone else to ending the Hawkeyes' undefeated season.

But the biggest benefits of the year for Iowa could come from that game.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was up until just last season the Michigan State defensive coordinator. So the Panthers provided the Hawkeyes with a sneak preview of what the Spartans are going to show defensively Saturday.

It's an even bigger deal considering the lack of recent games Iowa has played against Michigan State. The two teams haven't seen each other in conference play since 2013.

“We haven't played Michigan State in a while now, so there's a little distance there, but we got a practice game, if you will," Kirk Ferentz said earlier this week. "It's almost like in high school you've got those two scrimmages before you start playing, so at least it's not totally out of our minds. I think they're very, very similar at least from the defensive standpoint, and hopefully it'll be of some help, but then that also helps them to get some exposure to what we might be thinking.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]

10. Prediction time

Iowa boasts the better overall defense and the better rushing attack, while Michigan State has the better quarterback and defensive line.

It's hard to figure out what to expect, as both teams have played well all season and do different things well.

Iowa's strength of schedule has been much maligned, though the Hawkeyes dominated in their signature win over Northwestern, beating the Wildcats on the road by 30 points.

Michigan State hasn't looked great in many of its wins and has shown the capability to get lit up by opposing offenses, for example allowing nearly 400 yards of offense in the loss to Nebraska.

But the Spartans are hot, red hot. That win over Ohio State featured an incredible defensive performance, allowing just 132 total yards to the Buckeyes' star-studded offense. And that was followed by a dominating win over Penn State, a kind of domination where both offensive and defensive linemen scored touchdowns.

There's certainly something to be said for how a team is playing in the current moment. And if the defenses slow down the respective rushing attacks, then the game comes down the sport's most important position: quarterback. Michigan State has the edge there.

Kirk Ferentz said something recently about Iowa playing with house money, and it's true that the Hawkeyes have exceeded all expectations, already turning in the best season in program history. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio's senior-laden Spartans are on a mission that started years ago of being able to compete for a national championship. With the way their playing and a third shot to reach the peak of the mountain they've been climbing for three seasons, it doesn't seem like Michigan State will let another opportunity slip away.

The pick: Michigan State

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.