The Wisconsin Badgers will finally hit the road for its first Big Ten game, as it takes on the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing tomorrow night. Michigan State will be out to prove it should’ve been the choice of the Big Ten co-champions to go to the Rose Bowl last year and Wisconsin will be out to prove it can win in East Lansing after losing there last season.
Both teams lost its share of players to graduation or to the draft. Michigan State lost All-American and defensive leader Greg Jones, while Wisconsin lost Scott Tolzien, Gabe Carimi and J.J. Watt. But Wisconsin gained a quarterback to replace Tolzien in Russell Wilson. And even without Jones, the Michigan State defense has been scary good. Michigan State ranks second in the country in pass defense, allowing only 109.4 passing yards per game, while the rushing defense is terrible, ranking only third in the nation, allowing only 64 yards per game.
Obviously the Spartans haven't seen an offense like Wisconsin, who leads the nation in scoring, averaging 50.2 points per game. However, the Badgers have yet to see a defense like Michigan State either. Nebraska was supposed to be the bench mark for defenses in the Big Ten this year, but the blackshirts have yet to dominate like people thought going into the year.
Wisconsin's offense will be led by Wilson, who has exceeded everyone's expectations at the start of the year. Wilson is a passing quarterback, but can run and has made a difference when teams gameplan against the Badgers. He has thrown 14 touchdowns compared to only one interception. That one interception was his last pass against Northern Illinois when the game was not in doubt. He also has completed 74 percent of his passes and has been sacked only five times. In addition to his 14 passing touchdowns, he also has two on the ground, including his memorable 46-yard touchdown in his debut against UNLV, as well as a receiving touchdown which he had last week.
Junior running back Montee Ball is tied for the most touchdowns, 16, nationally with Temple's Bernard Pierce and has scored at least one touchdown in his last 12 games and multiple scores in 10 of those games. His 31 touchdowns in the last 12 games are far and away the most in the country. He’s managed to get those 16TD’s in 2011 on only 107 carries and has an average of 108.8yds per game, despite not playing most games beyond the 3rd quarter . He does need to be big part of the offense, not only as a runner, but also a receiver tomorrow. The Spartans linebackers may have trouble being able to cover Ball and sophomore James White. Ball has only seven catches on the year for 166 yards, but he has shown the ability to catch the football out of the backfield in the past as well.
Wide receiver Nick Toon will be able to play this week after missing last week's 59-7 victory over Indiana. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said he could have played last week, but made sure he'd be ready for tomorrow's game. Toon was far less than 100 percent last year against Michigan State and it perhaps cost Wisconsin an undefeated season. But this year will be tough as Michigan State has the second best pass defense statistically in the nation.
Michigan State will try to put the heat on Wilson. The Spartans will need to keep him in the pocket as Wisconsin makes a lot of its big plays off of Wilson roll outs. Losing defensive end William Gholston, who was suspended one game for his actions against Michigan, will hurt. Look for the Spartans to try to put pressure on Wilson, something the Wisconsin offensive line has dealt with well so far this year.
The matchup that will win the game is the Michigan State offense against the Wisconsin defense. Wisconsin's defense has been much improved this year, due to Chris Borland's return from an injury and a very deep and talented defensive line. Borland is coming off a career best performance against Indiana, recording 15 tackles in the 59-7 win. Not to be forgotten is his linebacking mate, Mike Taylor who had 13 tackles of his own. Borland and Taylor rank 24th and 30th in total tackles in the FBS, with 58 and 57 a piece and will be counted on to stop a rushing attack that is more north and south than east and west.
The Spartans rushing attack as gotten going after a sluggish start to the season, rushing for over 200 yards in the 28-14 win over its arch-rival Michigan. Leading the way for the Spartans rushing attack is the dual monster of Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell. Baker had his best game by far, rushing for 167yds and a TD, against a Michigan defense that was improving until last week.
However, if you're looking for one key player who could be the difference it very well could be Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins has taken a step back this season. He has looked shaky at times this season and has three touchdowns compared to two interceptions in the two Big Ten games, averaging 185 yards in those two conference games. If Cousins throws the ball 53 times like he did against Notre Dame, the Spartans have no chance to pull this game out.
Wisconsin will counter with cornerback Antonio Fenelus, who is one of the best cover cornerbacks in the Big Ten. He faces his biggest test of the season so far, going against the 6-foot-2 B.J. Cunningham, who has 621 yards receiving and two touchdowns on the year, including three 100-yard performances, highlighted by a nine-catch 154 yard performance three weeks ago in Michigan State's 10-7 victory at Ohio State.
The "X" factor has to be the fact the game is played at night. Like last year with Wisconsin against Ohio State as well as Oklahoma and Missouri, crazy things can happen in night games. Wisconsin also has not won in East Lansing since a 42-24 victory in 2002. Wisconsin needs to run the ball with Montee Ball and control the clock and take the crowd out of the game early. If the crowd gets going early, it will be an interesting game and one that people don't want to miss.
I expect this game to be a tight game through three quarters, but Michigan State will wear down in the fourth quarter due to the depth taking a hit with the loss of Gholston. Wisconsin will be able to score. Obviously, not 50 points this game, but they will be able to score and I don't think Michigan State will be able to keep up.
Wisconsin 34, Michigan State 21