With the Spartans heading to Madison for another important affair, Mike Fiammetta from Bucky's 5th Quarter was kind enough to answer some questions about Montee Ball, matchups and the #BorderBattle
1. What has been surprising about Wisconsin eight weeks into the season?
The largest surprise (of quite a few) was the amazingly weak start to the season. Wisconsin had two losses before September was even over, and Montee Ball's Heisman Trophy candidacy didn't even last that long. Wisconsin's tried-and-true foundation, its offensive line, floundered so greatly that first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired after two games. The defense was sufficiently "meh," as the linebackers' apparent vulnerability to wheel routes was an all-too-popular topic of discussion through the first several weeks. (Ed: #wheelroute)
Thus, the second largest surprise of the season is how quickly it all turned around. Neither of Wisconsin's two losses -- at Oregon State and at Nebraska -- looks so bad now, and the offense is rolling. Several questions remain, naturally, but the Badgers seem to be finding their groove at the best possible time.
2. The Badger offense got off to a rough start, but the last few weeks have been promising, especially for Montee Ball. Is this offense back on track?
As much as an offense starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback can be. The ground game has been off the charts the past three weeks, amounting to 977 yards gained almost entirely by Ball and James White. In total, Wisconsin's offense has racked up 1,515 yards in that span.
Joel Stave continues to take his lumps as the quarterback, though I think he's been more impressive than not so far. To date, 61-for-107 (57 percent) with 977 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. Critics have singled out his third-down numbers (30 percent completion percentage, one touchdown and three interceptions), while others cite his inexperience as a qualifier for those miscues. As long as UW's ground game can carry the offense, I'll venture that Stave will be fine.
3. Wisconsin's defense is quietly in the top 20 in total yardage. What's the biggest strength? Is there a weakness?
I believe linebackers Mike Taylor, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong are the biggest strength. Taylor is second in the Big Ten in tackles (84) and first in tackles for loss (10.0), though as Bret Bielema discussed in his weekly Monday press conference, Taylor wasn't even named a Butkus Award semifinalist. Borland, meanwhile, has also been everywhere on the field and is probably the defense's emotional leader. At strong-side linebacker, Armstrong doesn't get the props the other two do, but he absolutely deserves as much.
The weakness, I would say, is a secondary that is prone to big plays. Wisconsin has the Big Ten's fifth-ranked pass defense with 201.6 pass yards allowed per game, and it has a tendency to allow big plays at an inopportune time.
4. What are three keys to victory for Wisconsin on Saturday?
1. Over the past three years, we've seen quick starts don't necessarily mean much in this rivalry. That said, I think many Badgers fans now have confidence with this team working with a lead. If the running game can establish itself early, Wisconsin should be able to withstand any counter-punches from Michigan State.
2. Stave must be smarter with the ball. Bielema specifically said he wants to see Stave get rid of the ball quicker, especially when it comes to having to throw it away. Trust me, nobody on this end is underestimating MSU's front four. Stave knows he will face a ton of pressure, and how he responds will be of paramount importance.
3. Forcing turnovers. The Badgers have forced five over the past three games, though their turnover margin is only plus-two. Keeping MSU's offense at bay will also, of course, lighten the pressure on Stave.
5. Give me a score prediction and why.
27-17, Wisconsin. I think the Badgers will be able to get Ball and White going, Stave will play fair but unspectacular football and the defense will do just enough to keep MSU at bay.
Bonus: Do you guys look at MSU as a rival at all, given what has happened in football and hoops over recent years? And is this the end, given we're not scheduled to face off again until 2015? And why couldn't you give us last year's Rose Bowl?
We absolutely view Michigan State as a rival. In fact, we've said more than a few times on the site here this week that we think it's a fantastic budding rivalry, and the best current one in the Big Ten. It's a shame the football rivalry is going on hiatus, but we surely have some great hoops action to look forward to.
Is it the end? I sure hope not. Who knows what will have transpired by 2015, but I wouldn't bet against everyone being pumped once that first football game comes up on the schedule.
I have no answer to that last question. Let's just say we have a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for Brad Nortman's acting skills.
Thanks again to Mike for answering some questions. Make sure you check out Bucky's 5th Quarter for all things Badgers.