By Michael Marot
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- When Mark Dantonio took the Michigan State job in 2007, he had a simple plan -- follow Wisconsin.
He wanted a tough, physical offense. He expected the Spartans to win with defense and special teams. He hoped to shed the image of a periodic Big Ten contender and become a regular powerhouse, just like Wisconsin.
All No. 11 Michigan State has to do now is win the conference crown by beating No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday night.
"They (the Badgers) wanted to build good teams on defense, they wanted to play hard on special teams, they wanted to play in packed houses and win Big Ten titles and really they were doing that, probably in the '90s, the late '90s and the 2000s and they've continued on," Dantonio said. "That's hopefully what we're doing."
League foes would be hard-pressed to find major distinctions between the two programs, which look more like twins than budding rivals.
A year ago, the Badgers and Spartans both finished 7-1 in league play and wound up in a three-way tie for the conference title. Wisconsin won the tiebreaker and went to the Rose Bowl. This year, both went 10-2, won division crowns and will face one another in the Big Ten's inaugural championship game.
The matchup features the league's top two quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins, two top-five defenses and two powerful offenses.
Michigan State has won three of the past four, all in East Lansing, and the home team has won each of the past seven games in this series. Michigan State and Wisconsin are meeting for the third straight time with Top 25 rankings and this year's first matchup wasn't even decided until a replay review overturned the officials' call after time expired, giving the Spartans a 37-31 victory.
It doesn't get closer than that.
"I really respect and admire everything about what we have done here at Wisconsin, and the same thing could be said there at Michigan State. I've known Mark a long time, a tremendous football coach," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "I think there are common things that have played into our success, but I think we're a lot different, too."
While running back Montee Ball was busy scoring a league record 34 TDs, collecting the Big Ten offensive player of the year award and moving within Barry Sanders' single-season record (39 TDs), Bielema's hand-picked quarterback, Russell Wilson, was putting up record-breaking numbers, too. His passing efficiency of 192.9 is still ahead of Colt Brennan's 186.0, set in 2006 with pass-happy Hawaii and he can break Graham Harrell's NCAA record for most consecutive games with a TD pass (36) on Saturday.
The combination of power running, accurate throwing and a strong defense has made the Badgers the only Football Bowl Subdivision team with a scoring offense (44.8) and a scoring defense (15.2) ranked in the top five. Both are No. 4.
Cousins has thrown for more than 2,700 yards, 21 touchdowns, six interceptions and is likely to be a high pick in April's NFL draft. His favorite target, B.J. Cunningham, has 1,125 yards and nine TDs receiving and earned all-conference honors.
Yet the Spartans still rushed for 139 yards per game and have a defense ranked No. 3 in the nation and No. 11 against the run.
The Badgers know what they're up against.
"They did a great job of stopping the run and they deserved to win (the first game) because they went after us and we shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times," Ball said. "That's something we can't do this time when we get our second chance."
Especially when second chances are so rare in college.
Nobody on Wisconsin's coaching staff can remember having a rematch. Neither can Dantonio.
So who has the advantage this time?
The oddsmakers have installed Wisconsin as a heavy favorite again, giving the Spartans plenty of motivation to prove they're better than the Badgers.
"I feel like no matter how much success we've had here, people doubt us," Cousins said. "We take it in stride. We enjoy being underdogs, we enjoy being able to battle and prove people wrong, but the fact of the matter is, there will always be people doubting us, there will always be people pointing fingers saying we can't do the next thing. We've made it a habit lately of proving them wrong, so we're going to keep doing that."
Just like Wisconsin did over the past two decades.