Michigan State vs. Wisconsin: Complete Game Preview
The last time Michigan State and Wisconsin squared off, the result was an instant classic—and a near-aneurysm for play-by-play man Gus Johnson.
The Badgers defeated the Spartans 42-39, and advanced to the Rose Bowl, winning the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
This season, both teams got off to disappointing starts, but it's Wisconsin that has regained form while Michigan State continues to scuffle, facing an uphill climb to get back into contention for the Legends Division title.
But crazy things tend to happen when these two meet, so let's set the stage and preview the upcoming matchup.
What Happened to the Badgers Last Week?
The Badgers won their third straight game and retained Paul Bunyan's axe for the ninth straight year, pulling away late and knocking off Minnesota, 38-13.
Wisconsin went into ground-and-pound mode, with James White and Montee Ball stealing the show. The two running backs combined to rush 39 times for 341 yards and five touchdowns.
Quarterback Joel Stave's numbers were affected by multiple drops, including a few that likely would have resulted in touchdowns. He had to settle for a sub-.500 completion percentage and only 105 passing yards.
Along with the running game, the defense shined as well. Devin Smith and Ethan Armstrong each came up with interceptions of Minnesota freshman quarterback Phillip Nelson, and the Golden Gophers only managed 245 total yards of offense.
Wisconsin is riding all kinds of momentum as it is almost locked into the Big Ten Championship Game.
What Happened to the Spartans Last Week?
Whereas the Badgers will likely be making a return trip to Indianapolis in December, the Spartans have lost three Big Ten contests by a combined six points and are all but buried in the Legends Division.
Last week was yet another heart-breaking loss for Michigan State, as the Spartans came up short in Ann Arbor, conceding a 38-yard field goal with five seconds remaining to lose 12-10 in the battle for the Paul Bunyan trophy.
Star running back Le'Veon Bell could only muster 68 yards and 2.6 yards per carry, and the offense couldn't do enough to pick up Michigan State's stellar defense.
"Ugly" has been the most fitting word to describe Michigan State games this season, and last Saturday was no exception.
Michigan State tight end Dion Sims suffered an ankle injury in Week 6 and played sparingly in the first half last week against Michigan. Coach Dantonio anticipates that he will be able to give it a go against the Badgers (via Chris Solari of the Lansing State Journal).
One of the best tight ends in the country, Sims led the team in receiving before going down against Indiana. He is a big component in the Spartans' offense, and his presence alone would be a shot in the arm for a struggling Michigan State team.
For Wisconsin, head coach Bret Bielema is unsure if left tackle Ricky Wagner (ankle) will be back for the clash with the Spartans. If Wagner can't suit up, it will likely be Ryan Groy moving over to left tackle while Robert Burge fills in at left guard.
Running back Montee Ball (ankle) says he will be ready to go against the Spartans after exiting the Minnesota game late (via Tom Lea of ESPN).
The full injury report can be found at USA Today.
What It Means to Both Teams
What It Means to Wisconsin
A team that was left for dead three weeks ago, the Badgers are back in business, playing like the team everyone expected them to be entering the season.
As noted previously, Wisconsin is sitting pretty when it comes to earning a trip to Indy, so Saturday afternoon isn't a win-or-die situation.
However, the Badgers will want to keep old uncle Mo on their side, and beating Michigan State would give the team a nice boost and more credibility. Wisconsin's three conference victories have come against teams with just one combined victory in Big Ten play.
What It Means to Michigan State
It's going to take an undefeated stretch to close out the season—and then some—for the Spartans to have any chance at returning to Indianapolis, so this game means the world to Michigan State.
The Spartans are three back in the loss column to Michigan, who now holds the tiebreak as well, so it's asking a lot for a team that has yet to become bowl eligible to climb back into the Big Ten race.
That being said, you can guarantee head coach Mike Dantonio will have his players fired up in a must-win situation against a team Michigan State has played multiple classics against over recent years.
Key Player for Wisconsin
The Badgers unveiled what they are calling "The Barge," Wisconsin's variation of the Wildcat offense, against Minnesota.
The play involves James White alone in the backfield taking a direct snap with seven offensive linemen blocking up front. Wisconsin ran "The Barge" five times on Saturday, with White running the ball each time.
The next step? Having White throw a pass out of the formation. He's 0-for-1 on the season, but it will be interesting to see how often the Badgers turn to this new wrinkle as well as if White will let it fly against the Spartans should Wisconsin have trouble moving the ball on the ground.
Even without this new formation, White has been making his presence known lately. Against Minnesota, White rushed 15 times for 175 yards and three touchdowns, and he will be counted on against the Spartans to spell Montee Ball and offer some explosiveness out of the backfield.
Key Player for Michigan State
One bit of good news the Spartans received this week was that linebacker Max Bullough was named as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker.
Michigan State may struggle to put up points, but it is good at preventing them. Its defense is 11th in college football in points allowed (15.3 per game), and that defense is led by Bullough.
Bullough is far and away the team's leading tackler, accumulating 68 take downs through the team's first eight games. He intercepted his first pass of the season against Michigan and had two passes defended, so the junior is coming off his best game of the year.
It will be the defense's No. 1 priority to shut down the Badgers' running attack, and they'll need Bullough to play well if the Spartans want to succeed in forcing Wisconsin's freshman quarterback to beat them.
Wisconsin Will Win If...
Wisconsin will win if Joel Stave can take care of the football.
Michigan State will likely stack the box, looking to shut down the rejuvenated Badgers' rushing attack, so Joel Stave may be counted on to throw the football more than Wisconsin would prefer.
While that very well may be true, Stave has had great success throwing the ball out of play-action, so if the Spartans overplay the run, the freshman could make them pay.
Stave will have open receivers to throw to, so it's up to him to find those uncovered wideouts and stave from forcing the football into traffic. If he can make the right decisions and take what is given to him, the Badgers should take care of business against Michigan State.
Michigan State Will Win If...
Michigan State will win if it can hold the Wisconsin running game in check.
It won't be an easy task. The Badgers are averaging 6.78 yards per rush over their past three games, nearly totaling 1,000 yards on the ground over that same span.
To be fair, these games were against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota, but the Badgers have regained their swagger and seen huge improvements rushing the football, especially in between the tackles, since getting off to an extremely slow start on the ground.
The Spartans have a great rush defense, but they will need to beware of the play-action pass even though stopping Montee Ball and Co. will be their biggest challenge.
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Michigan State 27
This one has all the makings of a low-scoring smash-mouth football game, so naturally, it will turn into a high-scoring affair.
You never know what's going to happen when these two teams meet, and history indicates that the end zone will be readily available to both Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Joel Stave will be able to take advantage of an over-focus on the running game from the Spartans and have one of the best games of his young career. It will come down to the wire, but Wisconsin's home-field advantage will be the difference in what has emerged as a legitimate rivalry.