It’s a big week for the Big Ten.
Conference play finally starts in the Midwest, and the Michigan State-Wisconsin matchup is probably the most competitive in-conference game of the weekend.
Both Top 25 teams have plenty to gain but also plenty to lose. One loss in conference play can really put a season in jeopardy, while simultaneously taking a team out of the running in terms of national championships or big BCS bowl appearances.
Not only is it a gut-check for both programs, but it also will be a good measuring stick on how both programs have fared thus far.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is expected to be in Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon, albeit sitting in the press box and not on the sidelines. Don Treadwell will be the Spartans’ on-field general, although it is yet to be seen how Dantonio will impact the game and whether he will be calling all the shots.
Either way, it will be an exciting opener to what promises to be a truly entertaining rest of the college football season—especially in the Big Ten.
The Spartans failed to get even one sack against Northern Colorado. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has expressed concern over the lack of pressure exhibited by the defense’s front four, and facing a more mature QB in Scott Tolzien will be a big challenge.
An important area to watch will be how Narduzzi uses his defensive line in this game. Will he blitz more often and make the Badgers win with the running game, or will he have them drop back into coverage. The front four will have a big chip on their shoulder.
John Clay is one of the best running backs in the Big Ten and his services will definitely be needed in this crucial game. He has had an outstanding career at Wisconsin and is the focus of all opponents he plays.
The Spartans, on the other hand, are not quite known as a great defensive unit. There is still plenty of work to be done on that side of the ball, but this game could be a big launching pad—not only in terms of experience, but also confidence. Clay will be written all over MSU chalkboards this week.
Cousins has gotten consistently better every week, but this week’s game will be his biggest test so far. Last year he struggled at Camp Randall Stadium, although a home crowd should help calm his nerves this time around.
He has been finding his receivers—a group I called the best in the entire conference—more often and they are helping him out by not dropping balls and completing the big plays. If Cousins can connect on some big plays and limit his turnovers, he could very well be the difference.
Michigan State’s running game has been a huge surprise, most notably when it comes to true freshman Le’Veon Bell. There were whispers in the spring of Bell possibly being a breakout star for the Spartans, but his impact so far has been amazing—especially with last year’s starter Larry Caper nursing an injury the first couple games.
When you combine Bell’s tough running with the speed of Caper and Edwin Baker, this three-pronged running game may very well be the best in the entire conference. Each back does different things well, so the Badgers will definitely not treat Bell as a freshman. If the Spartans’ running attack is not hitting on all cylinders, it will put a lot more pressure on Cousins.
It has been learned that Dantonio will be present at Saturday’s game after suffering a mild heart attack after the Notre Dame game. He is recuperating at a fairly good rate and really wants to be there for his team and its fans. He will most likely be in the press box calling the shots.
But the question will be how much Dantonio actually plays a part in this game. He will probably make the big decisions as the game progresses, but Treadwell showed he can lead the team with great vigor and resolve. Either way, Dantonio will serve as an inspiration for his team and they will give their all for the man they respect.