MADISON WI - SEPTEMBER 18: John Clay #32 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs for a first down against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Camp Randall Stadium on September 18 2010 in Madison Wisconsin. Wisconsin defeated Arizona State 20-19. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
So, enough with the non-con schedule: the real football season starts this week. And, for the third time in four seasons, MSU opens the conference slate with Wisconsin -- a team fresh off an absolute demolition of the hapless Austin Peay Governors (Governors!). It's a crucial game for the Spartans, who could establish themselves as outside contenders for the conference title with a win. Currently, the Badgers are 2.5 point road favorites. We'll have much more about Wisconsin throughout this week, but here's a quick look at the Badgers' performance thus far:
GAMES. Wisconsin is 4-0, though there have been bumps along the way. In week one, the Badgers topped UNLV in Las Vegas, 41-21. Wisconsin only led 17-14 at halftime, but outscored the Rebels 24-0 to put the game away. In week two, they put forth a really uninspiring performance against San Jose State, winning only 27-14 in a game notable for David Gilreath's awful-looking concussion.
The following week, the Badgers beat Arizona State by the slimmest of margins, 20-19. Wisconsin gave up tons and tons of yardage in returns -- including a 97-yard ASU kickoff return touchdown -- but special teams nonetheless ended up saving the day, as Jay Valai blocked the game-tying extra point, and the Badgers were able to run out the clock. The win wasn't without collateral losses, however, as star linebacker Chris Borland went down with a shoulder injury; he won't play against MSU. This win looks better after ASU hung with Oregon for much of the game on Saturday, but it still was a closer call than you'd expect for a team rated as highly as the Badgers.
And last week? Well, it was as much of a laugher as you'll ever see in college football: Wisconsin led 49-3 at the half -- scoring touchdowns on all 7 of their possessions -- and coasted to a 70-3 win. As I wrote yesterday, there's probably little to be gleaned from games like this, but it's impossible to ignore that video game-like scoreline.
PLAYERS. Scott Tolzien is the Badger quarterback once again. Against MSU last season, Tolzien was excellent, going 19-31 for 243 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions. This year, he's been solid once again: he's completing 76% of his passes and has 5 touchdowns. Turnovers may be an issue, as he has thrown two picks and has fumbled the ball three times (although Wisconsin recovered all three of those fumbles).
The running game looks to be as good as advertised, as John Clay (501 yds, 6.5 avg, 6 TDs) has been joined by freshman James White (269 yds, 7.9 avg, 4 TDs) and sophomore Montee Ball (185 yds, 4.5 avg, 3 TDs) to form a brutally efficient attack. Wisconsin's offensive line is gigantic and talented, as always, and MSU has to win some battles up front if they have a prayer of containing the ground attack (and winning the game).
The rush defense has been good but not great: San Jose State and Austin Peay were completely shut down on the ground, but Arizona State rushed for 6 yards per carry and 169 yards total, and UNLV topped the 100-yard mark. Similarly, Wisconsin has sacked opposing quarterbacks 8 times, but also gave up 200+ yards passing to both San Jose State and Arizona State. The defense, in sum, is solid but not stellar, and State should be able to put up yards and points.
So, I put it to you: 5+ days from kickoff, how are you feeling about Saturday's big game?