Wisconsin’s only loss last season came in the first week of Big Ten play, when the Michigan State Spartans hung 444 offensive yards – including 175 rushing yards – on the Badgers, beating them 34-24. The No. 6 Badgers return to East Lansing this Saturday seeking payback. The Badgers are an undefeated, explosive, high-scoring offensive juggernaut, but so was Denard Robinson and his Michigan Wolverines. How’d that work out?
Though Wisconsin still has to beat Ohio State on the road and survive two games with surprisingly ranked Penn State and Illinois, this game will in all likelihood be their most challenging. And if the Badgers want to make sure Russell Wilson‘s season as the Badgers’ hired-gun quarterback ends in the Rose Bowl or BCS Championshiop, they’ll have to solve the No. 16 Spartans.
Offensively, It’s No Contest
The Spartans can’t hang with the Badgers on offense. The Badgers average 136 more yards per game (523.2 – eighth-most in the NCAA), including over 100 more yards on the ground (257.5 – seventh-most in the NCAA). Montee Ball leads the Badger ground game, having in six games already compiled 653 yards and 16 touchdown runs, making him the second-best scoring back in the country. Ball’s speed lets him shoot through gaps in the line, then his agility helps him elude tacklers down-field. Although he runs less along the sidelines than up the gut, he’s occasionally been quick enough to round the corner once Wisconsin’s beefy linemen set an edge for him.
The Spartans, meanwhile, don’t even have a top-75 running back. Edwin Baker has been their best, but he’s gained just 419 yards and scored twice on the ground. Le’Veon Bell has six rushing touchdowns, but he’s been used so sparingly that the Badgers defense should know that whenever the Spartans are near the end zone and Bell’s in, it’s a running play.
The passing gap isn’t as bad between the two teams, but every quarterback in the country is looking up at Wilson right now. Wilson’s strength, accuracy, intelligence and speed make him terrifying to opposing secondaries.
Badgers head coach Bret Bielema doesn’t want to overuse Wilson, who has in the past shown a tendency to fade as the season progresses. That’s why despite Russell’s talent, the Badgers have still run nearly twice as many rushing plays as passing plays (239 to 128, with Wilson rushing an additional 24 times).
Spartan QB Kirk Cousins has been solid, but he just doesn’t have the chops to hang with Wilson. Cousins is a 66 percent thrower; Wilson is a 74 percent thrower. Cousins needed 114 completions to post 1,317 passing yards; Wilson needed just 95 to get 1,557. Cousins has an 8-4 touchdown-interception ratio; for Wilson, it’s 14-1.
The Badgers lead the NCAA with over 50 points per game, whereas the Spartans average 28. For the Spartans to win, they’ll need more offense than their team has been able to muster this season.
The Spartans’ Strong Front-Seven
The Spartans and Badgers have similarly opportunistic defenses: the Spartans have intercepted eight passes, whereas the Badgers have intercepted seven. Problem is, the Spartans throw the ball way more often than the Badgers, passing 195 times and running 226. More throws means more opportunities for picks.
Now, MSU wide receiver B.J. Cunningham has been more productive than Wisconsin’s Nick Toon, but the Spartans don’t have a backup for Cunningham the way the Badgers do in Jared Abbrederis, who in his last two games has caught nine balls for 158 yards and a touchdown. So Wisconsin’s secondary can focus on Cunningham in a way MSU can’t with Toon.
For the Spartans to win, it will come down to their front-seven. MSU’s 21 sacks ranks them ninth in the NCAA, with 4.5 belonging to linebacker Denicos Allen. The Badgers have shown a slight vulnerability to pass-rush, although the risk with aggressive pass-rushing is that Wilson will just break from the pocket and take off.
The Badgers haven’t won in East Lansing since 2002. They know how hard this game will be, and they’ll prepare for it like they did for the Cornhuskers. If the Spartans can not just pressure Wilson, but also keep him contained, they have a shot, especially if they can pick him off a couple of times. But overall, the Spartans just don’t do enough things better than the Badgers. Their secondary isn’t noticeably better, their offense is weaker, and their punt-return unit is far weaker.
Pretty much the only things the Spartans do better are pass-rush and return kickoffs. That’s not going to be enough.
Final Score: Badgers 31, Spartans 21