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Montee Ball is entering the 2012 season without quarterback Russell Wilson to share the load in the Wisconsin offense. That could help his Heisman candidacy if the Badgers succeed, or hurt it if they fail.
If all things go according to plan, Ball will once again be a Heisman finalist on a Big Ten championship team.
However, Michigan State’s defense will be a major hurdle. The Badgers and Spartans have developed a fierce rivalry in recent years, and this game will be no less hard-hitting than its predecessors.
Ball has to expect that he will be the primary target of a defensive attack from State.
The scary part of it is that even while focusing on making the Heisman candidate a priority, the Spartans’ defense is deep enough to leave its secondary as lone wolves in the defensive backfield. Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard are premiere shutdown corners, and Isaiah Lewis will have no problem manning the safety position as effectively as he did last season.
So, we’re talking about a team that can stack the tackle box and still have playmakers defend passes and possibly make interceptions.
The Badgers aren’t scrubs, but they have a new quarterback in Danny O’Brien. He is a transfer out of the ACC, just as Wilson was, but he does not have the physical tools to be as effective as Wilson on the run.
That’s not to say that O’Brien can’t make something out of nothing. That is an ability that most-impressed coach Bret Bielema and likely won him the position over senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
It’s going to take a lot of scrambling to consistently make plays against State’s strong defensive line and linebacker corps. Plus, Michigan State has its own Heisman candidate in Le'Veon Bell, who became the Spartans’ go-to guy last season in the absence of Edwin Baker and will likely be leaned on much more because of MSU’s uncertain quarterback situation.
If Ball allows Bell to snatch the attention from him in this game, it will be pretty difficult to make a case that he’s the best running back in college football, much less the best football player.