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Preview: Michigan State vs. Wisconsin


[Note: I'm catching a plane to Detroit in two hours, so this preview is slightly shorter than usual.]

Ohio State is clearly the class of the Big Ten this season, but a massive power vacuum exists behind them -- and MSU, with its 4-0 start, talented roster, and schedule that doesn't include a date with the Buckeyes, looks increasingly like a team that could fill that void.  Getting there will require a top performance against a strong, talented, and disciplined Wisconsin team which plays a style of football that surely has appeared in Mark Dantonio's dreams once or twice.

Indeed, this Wisconsin team looks to be MSU's realistic aspirations, personified.  Still, they're a beatable team, as Arizona State demonstrated at Camp Randall a few weeks ago.  As we get closer to kickoff, I'm becoming more and more optimistic that MSU has what it takes to knock off the Badgers--but getting there will require a type of complete team performance which has rarely come together for the Spartans.  This is the biggest and most consequential MSU conference opener of my lifetime.  A win over Wisconsin would signal that this MSU team has broken for the past, and is prepared to make a big leap forward.

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON DEFENSE: . . . they'll be facing a talented Badger offense that has the ability to put up a ton of points, as demonstrated in last week's record-breaking performance against Austin Peay.  Yes, it was Austin Peay, but Wisconsin scored 49 points in the first half -- scoring touchdowns on all seven of its possessions -- and generally looked unstoppable.  But while the offense can be explosive, it's also a bit schizophrenic: in the previous two weeks, the Badgers only scored 27 points against San Jose State, and 20 points against Arizona State.  The relatively-low output against San Jose State score is particularly strange, as the Aztecs [other] Spartans currently rank 104th in total defense.

More, after the jump.

Like any good coach, we'll prepare for the best iteration of the Wisconsin offense -- and, with talent at all the skill positions and a huge, experienced offensive line, it doesn't take much imagination to understand how they're so good.  I've heard Scott Tolzien described as "the apotheosis of the Wisconsin quarterback," and to me that sounds correct: he's not flashy, he's got a weird name, and he doesn't garner many headlines.  He does, however, do many things right and very few things wrong, and that was never demonstrated better than in his performance against MSU last season, when he went 19-for-31 for 243 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This season is no different, as he's currently eighth in the country in pass efficiency (176.17), is completing 76% of his passes, and has 5 touchdowns against only 2 interceptions.  Like most quarterbacks, Tolzien can be rattled by pressure, but applying pressure, of course, has been a big problem for MSU this season.

Tolzien throws to a group of receivers which should improve substantially with the return of Nick Toon and David Gilreath on Saturday.  As described by Wisconsin beat writer Jeff Potrykus to Joe Rexrode:

Toon is the bigger playmaker at WR than Gilreath, though Gilreath had a great camp and clearly was healthy this season. Gilreath battled foot problems (stress fractures) all last season and didn't have burst to get in and out of his breaks and gain separation. Toon gives them a legit No. 1 threat that most teams can't cover with a single DB. That generally means more room for WR Isaac Anderson, Gilreath, TE Lance Kendricks. It also gives quarterback Scott Tolzien a securtity blanket. He is, if I may sound like a coach, on the same page with Toon and Kendricks. He is a better QB with Toon on the field.

Toon caught a touchdown pass against MSU last season, and Gilreath has been Wisconsin's primary kick returner in the past, FWIW.  (James White seems to have assumed those duties for the moment.)  Tight end Lance Kentricks has also been excellent this season, and is Wisconsin's leading receiver with 17 catches for 299 yards (17.6 average -- for a tight end!) and three touchdowns.  You'll surely recall that former Badger tight end Garrett Graham was a terror against MSU last season, catching 3 touchdowns.  MSU struggled against Kyle Rudolph a couple weeks ago, and improved coverage on opponents' tight ends has long been on my defensive wishlist.  Our linebackers picked off three passes last week, so perhaps this is the week for an improvement?  Here's hoping.

I'll skimp on the running backs preview, as you surely are already familiar with what John Clay can do.  Many pegged him as the top running back in the nation this season, and he's lived up to the hype so far, with 501 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns even while splitting carries with Montee Ball and James White.  Perhaps most impressive is that, in all of his rushes, Clay has only lost two yards this season.  He's nearly impossible to catch behind the line of scrimmage.  James White had a big game last week, and is the perfect speedy counterpart to Clay's brawn.

The offensive line, being a Wisconsin offensive line, is naturally huge and awesome.  They returned 4 of their starters from last season, average 321 pounds, and were ranked by Phil Steele as the second-best OL in the country.  Say no more.  Needless to say, taming the Wisconsin offense will be a massive challenge for MSU's much-maligned defense.

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON OFFENSE: They'll be facing off against a defense that was expected to be mediocre-to-poor, but has actually played very well this season.  Wisconsin is currently 16th in the country in total defense; they're allowing only 265 total yards per game thus far, and only 94 of those yards have been on the ground.  Junior DE Louis Nzegwu has been quite good, with 17 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 TFLs.  The defensive line was expected to take a few steps back from last season's excellent unit; but even without O'Brien Schofield & Co., the Badgers have 8 sacks in 4 games.

Wisconsin suffered a big loss when Chris Borland went down for the season; the speedy OLB was the Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year last season, and was off to a good start.  Again, Potrykus on how the Badgers have been affected:

No doubt it hurts, but more in the 3-3-5 than the base defense. As many plays as Borland made in 2009 people forget he never played LB in high school and was't a starter. He only moved into the starting lineup after Mike Taylor went down with an ACL in Week 7 vs. Iowa. If Taylor had stayed healthy he might have been Big Ten freshman of the year. He is slowly rounding back into form. If they can keep Taylor, Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean healthy they'll be OK at LB. In the 3-3-5 they're now using reserve end David Gilbert in Borland's spot. If he can make some plays in that scheme the loss should at least be minimized.

Bucky's 5th Quarter was a bit more concerned about the loss:

There is no one on the entire team like the true sophomore linebacker that was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009. A two-star recruit, Borland proved early and often that he was quick enough, strong enough and athletic enough to play defense in the Big Ten immediately. He also has an uncanny awareness for being near the ball at all times and that will be the toughest thing to replace.

Personally, I think his loss will make a difference.  Borland is very fast and would have been very useful for the Badgers to help track down Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker; I think his loss portends good things for the running game.  Similarly, I loved how Kirk Cousins made better use of Brian Linthicum in the passing game last week.  Linthicum is quick and athletic, and should be able to win the matchups against Wisconsin's linebackers.

The pass defense hasn't been as good as the run defense for Wisconsin, but it's still ranked #30 in the country right now (170 yards allowed per game) and we'd of course love for MSU's pass defense to be ranked that highly.  Phil Steele expected that Wisconsin's secondary would be improved this season, and they seem to be: the Badgers have 19 pass break-ups this season.  But they're still allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 57% of passes, they're allowing 11 yards per completion, and they have only 2 interceptions in 4 games against average-to-poor competition.  This game won't be handed on a silver platter to Kirk Cousins, but the opportunity for a big game is probably there.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I really think that, for MSU to win this game, the winning score has to be in the 20s.  For all the firepower MSU has on offense, Wisconsin has more, and I simply don't see us winning a shootout.  To be successful, I think the biggest key is establishing a solid running game.  The offensive benefits are obvious: our backs have shown the ability to gain huge chunks of yards, and the success on the ground has also set up Kirk Cousins' beloved play action.  But just as importantly, Wisconsin is going to be running the ball like crazy, and our defense is almost certainly going to be on the field for a ton of time.  If MSU can't establish the run and come up with a few long, time consuming drives of its own, the Spartan defense is going to be worn out quickly.

In any event, sadly, this is the type of game MSU simply hasn't won under Mark Dantonio: State has been very good at dispatching with lesser opponents, but has yet to take down an appreciably better team in conference play.  (Penn State in '07 comes the closest, but that was hardly a vintage PSU team.)  In the end, Wisconsin has a few too many weapons for me to call for a Spartan upset.  If you're looking for a few positive indicators, look no farther than Stones1981's comment from yesterday:

1) Bielema only has one road win against Big Ten teams that finished with a plus-.500 overall record.
2) Bielema only has one Big Ten win over an AP Top 25 team – home or away.

Nonetheless, I just don't see it happening.  Wisconsin 35, MSU 27.  Please, God, let me be wrong.