The [real] season starts Saturday. Coming to town are the wounded Michigan State Spartans. Fresh off a heart-breaking loss to Notre Dame, the week after a collapse against Central Michigan, they need a win, especially with recharged, in-state rival Michigan looming next week.
In the Alvarez Era, Wisconsin holds a slight lead (8-7), but the home team has won the last four games, starting with the 2003, 35-point blowout in Madison that took Michigan State out of the top 25. They returned the favor in East Lansing the next year, ending Wisconsin’s last, best Rose Bowl bid, also by a 35-point margin.
Wisconsin pulled out a squeaker at home in 2007. They capitalized on Badger errors and kicked the winning field goal at the gun last year in East Lansing.
Will the home field advantage hold up this year?
For a 1-2 team, there’s a lot to like about the Spartans. There’s a reason they were picked to finish 3rd in the Big Ten during media days. The Spartans are a well-balanced, well-coached team with solid, if not spectacular talent.
Before the season began, this game was circled as the Badgers’ early barometer. It still is.
Michigan State may have the best middle linebacker in the conference in Greg Jones. Is he enough? Dantonio built his career on solid defense, and as a Tressel disciple, his defense is always solid.
But not spectacular.
Even without Notre Dame’s biggest offensive playmaker, the Irish were able to move the ball on MSU nearly at will last week. Last week’s game is a scheming advantage to the Badgers’ offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.
While the talent level is different, the Badger offensive scheme, especially in the Tolzien era, looks a lot like the Notre Dame’s. With the exception of the Wildcat, Wisconsin does everything on offense that Notre Dame did last week.
Now, as much as I like Scott Tolzien, he’s no Jimmy Clausen. And as much as I like Isaac Anderson and Nick Toon, neither play at the level of Michael Floyd and Golden Tate. Graham, on the other hand, probably is as good as Rudolph (if not as athletic), and our tight end depth is better than Notre Dame’s.
Between passing out of two-tight end sets, and employing Moore, Gilreath, and Jefferson to spread the field, the Badgers should find some success through the air. Just as the Irish did last week, the Badgers should come out looking to spread the field and throwing short, controlled passes out of quick drops.
On the ground? Again, Jones’s nine tackles notwithstanding, the Irish were able to run on Sparty. However, with the present state of our offensive line, the Badgers will have more trouble.
Also, our backs are a different kind than MSU saw last week. Notre Dame runs smaller, quicker backs, whereas ours are big bruisers. Nonetheless, it was up the middle—Greg Jones or not—that ND found space to run, and that’s where the Badgers need to go, too.
The bottom line is if Tolzien gets things going early through the air, the Badgers will move the ball and score points (assuming we don’t fumble six times).
That’s the good news. Here’s the bad:
Quick, name the top two quarterbacks for efficiency in the Big Ten? Kirk Cousins (MSU, 164.3) and Scott Tolzien (161.8). Who woulda thunk it?
In many ways, the MSU offense is like ours. After a dominating run game last season, and despite an unsettled quarterback competition at the outset of the season, MSU throws the ball better than they run it. Kirk Cousins, though a first-year starter, is the reason why. Moreover, like ND for Chryst, MSU can take a long look at what Fresno State did against us as they run a similar offense to the Bulldogs.
MSU’s receivers aren’t as flashy as the ones we saw from Fresno State, but they are capable (currently second and third in the Big Ten in receiving) and will test our shaky secondary. Against Notre Dame’s corners (who are much more athletic than ours), Cousins went 23 of 35, for 302 yards, and a touchdown.
This is a major concern.
There’s an argument to be made that Notre Dame’s front seven never got any pressure on Cousins (well, until causing the game-ending pick) whereas Wisconsin’s might. Despite MSU sending out a patch-work offensive line, much like our own, and Notre Dame’s constant blitzing, MSU kept Cousins clean.
Will they do the same against us? We run a different system and won’t blitz nearly as often. That will allow our linebackers to help out in coverage, something I suspect the Irish would do if they played the Spartans again.
Can Schofield and Watt get pressure where ND couldn’t? Possibly. Defensive line is probably Notre Dame’s biggest weakness. This is one area I think the Badgers have an edge on MSU’s last opponent. And while no one is singing the praises of our defensive tackles, I actually think they’ve done a pretty nice job.
So, taking a glass half-full approach, it’s possible we’ll put more pressure on Cousins and have more success defending the pass than ND did. Possible, but I’m not sure I’d say likely. In fact, given our performance against Fresno State, I’d say it’s pretty unlikely.
Unlike last year, with Javon Ringer running the ball, the Spartans have yet to find a successful running game. Not just Notre Dame, but CMU also pretty well limited the Spartans’ ground game. We should be able to do the same.
Then there’s the Spartans’ second quarterback. I said this team feels a lot like ours, and I meant it. Keith Nichol is their Curt Phillips. He doesn’t have the passing game that Cousins does, but he’s better on his feet. Like Phillips, he gets a few series a game. Unlike Phillips, that includes tight games.
While many Spartan fans were upset Dantonio sent him in when he did last week, I actually thought it was a pretty good move, and loosened up the Irish defense just as they were starting to tighten up. Expect to see him a few times this game as well.
That brings us to the odds and ends: special teams and intangibles.
As I already pointed out, the home team has won the last four in this series. Advantage Wisconsin.
Special Teams: the Spartans are a little vulnerable on kickoff returns, but do a good job in the punting game. Despite his shaky start I like Welch, but MSU’s Brett Swenson is a big-game kicker (including beating us last season). Advantage: Michigan State
Coaching: Bielema appears calmer to me; that’s a good thing. Dantonio took a moderately talented team and made them winners last season. They weren’t great at anything, but they made the most of what they had. Advantage: Michigan State.
Wild Card: Sparty’s state of mind. Imagine if NIU had scored against us at the end, missed the two-point conversion, recovered another onside kick, and kicked the winning field goal. That’s not too far from what happened to MSU against Central Michigan. (To be clear, we built a huge lead over NIU, whereas CMU was competitive with MSU the whole game). Then imagine that we were the ones whose quarterback threw the game-ending pick against Fresno State.
That’s Michigan State. One game they should have won, another, bigger game they could very easily have won.
The Spartans say they are over it. They’re moving on. That’s all well and good, but how they hold up if the Badgers can build an early lead, and how they hold up if the game is close down the stretch are open questions.
They will come out with fire. If the Badgers can tame that and get an early lead, I suspect MSU will struggle to keep the fire burning. Advantage: Wisconsin.
Let’s go to the numbers (Big Ten Standings; remember I said MSU and UW are a lot alike):
Points per Game: UW (#4) 35.3 / MSU (#5) 33.7
Points Allowed: UW (#6) 21.7 / MSU (#6) 21.7
Yards per Game: UW (#5) 425.3 / MSU (#6) 422.7
Yards Allowed: UW (#6) 333.7 / MSU (#7) 338.3
Turnover Margin: UW (#5) +2 / MSU (#6) even (however, MSU has only turned the ball over twice; the ball isn’t rolling around in their games)
Penalties (total): UW (#8) 19 / MSU (#8) 19
Penalty Yards Per Game: UW (#9) 61.7 / MSU (#8) 55.7
Prediction? I’ll be honest: my gut feels a 14-point loss. Their record aside, Michigan State can play. My heart tells me we win another tight one. We can play, too.
Bucky 26, Sparty 24.