Adam Hoge from the excellent SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter
was nice enough to answer a few questions about the Badgers for me. Adam also asked me a few questions; those will be up on his site sometime today or tomorrow.
1. Like Michigan State, Wisconsin has an excellent offense on the ground and an efficient pass attack. Given MSU's questionable pass defense this season, what do you think the Badgers' offensive game plan will be?
Wisconsin will still come out of the gate running the football and that's probably where this game will be won or lost for Michigan State. If the Spartans can stop John Clay and Co. from running, then all the pressure goes on UW QB Scott Tolzien whose worst games have come when the opponent stops the run. Either way, Tolzien has to find tight end Lance Kendricks
who has won back-to-back Mackey Tight End of the Week honors. He's probably the best tight end in the country.
Wisconsin will also benefit from the return of its top two wide receivers, Nick Toon
and David Gilreath. If MSU can't stop the run, you will see a lot of play action and some big completions will be open in the passing game.
2. Linebacker Chris Borland, last year's Big Ten Freshman of the year, is out for the season. How has the defense adjusted to his loss so far?
It's hard to even call it an adjustment because he has been out for almost all of the season so far. But it's certainly a huge loss. Against UNLV, Borland was all over the field and provided a scary pass rush. Then he got hurt in the second half and other than six plays against Arizona State, he hasn't been on the field. Even though he barely played, there is no question the defense is different without Borland. The pass rush isn't the same and the tackling has been average at best. Linebacker Mike Taylor is starting to play with confidence as comes off a knee injury and the Badgers need him to become a force again.
3. On a scale of 1 to 10, how concerned are you about Wisconsin's special teams in this game?
This is a good question. The return game has been a problem for the last three years, but the coverage unit has never really been an issue. What Arizona State did against the Badgers was very surprising and it was a huge wake up call. I'd like to think it was just a slip-up and a correctable issue. I guess we'll find out Saturday.
Meanwhile, the return game will be something to watch this weekend. I've been on Bielema's case for two years now about getting Gilreath off punt return duties and it didn't happen until he was taken off the field in an ambulance. Redshirt freshman Jared Abbrederis
has taken over those duties and done a great job, but he muff two punts last week and was replaced by Aaron Henry
who also did a nice job. According to Monday's depth chart, Gilreath will not be involved in the return game this week, but Bielema said they wouldn't make a decision until game time Saturday. So this question not only applies to this week, but also for the rest of the season: Will Bielema put Gilreath back out there on returns or will he limit his duties to just the offense? At this point, only one of those options makes any sense whatsoever, but the UW head coach has been stubborn on this one for a long time.
4. Bret Bielema had another excellent (at least in MSU terms) season last year; 10 wins and a bowl win. That said, it seems like there's a bit of unrest concerning his coaching performance. How satisfied have you been with his tenure?
I think when people see a new coach struggle a little bit it's really easy for them to get nervous and make crazy statements about that coach not being able to handle his job. When the Badgers went 7-6 in 2008, fans forgot very quickly that Bielema went 12-1 in his first year as head coach. That was a school-record for wins. But they had legitimate gripes. Bielema was playing with Barry Alvarez's players in 2006 and he made some horrible coaching errors in '08, as I'm sure Michigan State fans are well aware of. I admit I was concerned in '08, but I'm never going to call for a coach to get fired until they get a chance to make adjustments and fix their mistakes -- especially when it is a first-time head coach. I've been impressed with how Bielema has bounced back and I'm not even talked about wins and losses. He installed a new mindset at Wisconsin and his players have a different attitude that I like a lot.
But in the end, it does come down to wins and losses and we both know what happened in East Lansing in 2008. I think it is fair to say this is an important game for Bielema. On Saturday, we'll see how far he has come in two years.
5. The same question you asked me reflected back at you: Give me a score and a quick summary of how you think this one will play out.
Wisconsin 31, Michigan State 30. I fully expect this game to come down to a field goal at the horn again. I don't think Michigan State will be able to stop Wisconsin's offense, but unfortunately for the Badgers, they have stopped their own offense plenty of times this season. If they want to win, they have to convert in the red zone and Tolzien cannot turn the ball over. Wisconsin's defense continues to worry me though. There have been a lot of missed tackles and MSU's balanced offense could be a problem. This game comes down to one thing for me: Which team will be able to stop the run? I think the Badgers have a better chance to do that. As long as they limit their own mistakes (ahem, including coaching mistakes), Wisconsin will return home with a win.