The Big Ten returns from a wintry hiatus for the Conference Semifinals Saturday, as Ohio State hosts Illinois in Columbus, Ohio and Wisconsin hosts Indiana in Madison, Wisc. The winners play each other next week in Madison for the inaugural Big Ten Universities Championship, and the losers meet for third place.
Ohio State won the BTU’s East Division in the fall with a 3-1-1 record, losing to Indiana and tying Michigan State. The Buckeyes avenged their sole loss by beating the Hoosiers in the final game of the regular season to take the Division title. Illinois reached the semis by finishing second in the West with a 4-1 record. The Fighting Illini’s only loss was to Division Champion Wisconsin.
The winter break was bitter sweet for Ohio State, as a starting second row and a starting flanker graduated midseason and starting centers Nevin Heard and Jeff Chatfield, along with starting No. 8 Santino Cua, all returned from injury.
Heard and Chatfield combine for a big portion of the Buckeye attack, and Cua is instrumental in initiating go-forward ball, so offensively Ohio State is in a better place now than it was in the fall.
Illinois has its fair share of weapons, too, including the conference’s leading try scorer – fullback Martin Giannetti. He led the Big Ten in tries by a wide margin, and he’s caught the eye of the Ohio State coaching staff, which will be wary of kicking to the big, fast athlete with clutch counter-attacking ability.
Illinois’ spring has seen mixed results. Some fixtures were canceled due to weather, the Illini won a 10s tournament and then lost to DI-AA playoff hopeful Northern Illinois.
Ohio State’s spring has been mostly down, though the team has improved each game. The Buckeyes lost to Clemson in Charlotte, lost big to Bowling Green and then lost a closer one to Notre Dame.
“Results weren’t what we wanted in those games, but hopefully it prepared us against hard competition,” said Ohio State coach Ron Bowers. “Our team actually, in the second half against Notre Dame last week, started to get it – playing as a team, fixing our defensive breakdowns, the continuity of moving the ball forward.”
In the other semifinal, Indiana will be trying to hand Wisconsin its first BTU loss ever. The Badgers went 5-0 in the fall, and, dating back to the old Midwest league, haven’t lost a regular season league game since at least 2008. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.
The Badgers did lose a friendly this spring to varsity Lindenwood, however, 54-10. As far as results against the Lions go, Wisconsin actually did quite well.
Indiana finished the fall 3-2, dropping games to Michigan and Ohio State. The Hoosiers have plenty of young talent, and could be up against it when they face a more experienced Wisconsin side. Indiana did well to win the Savannah St. Pat’s tournament and lose narrowly to Life’s second side on tour this spring.
The winner of the Big Ten will advance to the play-in round of the DI-A postseason. If Illinois or Wisconsin wins, they'll play the West No. 2 for a quarterfinal berth. If Ohio State or Indiana wins, they'll play the Rugby East No. 2. But right now everyone's got their eyes fixed on the Big Ten prize.
“We’ve been stressing that we’ve got a chance that not many teams at Ohio State do, to play for a Big Ten Championship,” said Bowers.
“And it’s special and the people that are in the Big Ten understand that. Some Varsity Cup team or independent team might not know what an honor it is to play at a Big Ten school and play for Big Ten Championship, so that’s what our guys are focusing on.”