For the second straight week a briefly dormant rivalry is rekindled. This time it’s Michigan State’s #RealRival, Wisconsin, in the Big Ten season opener.
The two programs have had epic clashes — “Rocket”, The Inaugural Big Ten Championship game, Andrew Maxwell’s One Shining Moment — and this week’s Top 10 tilt is shaping up to be another good one.
The Spartans and Badgers have their fair share of similarities — big early season wins and powerful ground games — but stark contrasts as well. Can Mark Dantonio topple the program he once used as the blueprint for his own?
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First, a moment to reflect on a epic win in South Bend. The final result was one I admittedly did not see coming but sometimes being wrong can be so right.
After DeShone Kizer led Notre Dame on a methodical first quarter touchdown drive, sandwiched in between stalled MSU possessions, Spartan fears appeared valid.
But then, of all the things to happen, the once maligned punt coverage unit came up with a big play, grabbing a ball that ricocheted off an Irish leg to give MSU the ball back in great field position. The next play, this happened....
Incredible catch by Spartans WR Donnie Corley. #MSUvsND pic.twitter.com/xdizxZVLg7— Travis Durkee (@Travis_Durkee) September 18, 2016
Momentum then swung in the Spartans favor and it was off to the races. MSU dominated on the ground and built up (then nearly blew) a 36-7 lead, eventually winning the game, 36-28, and in the process answered a lot of lingering questions.
This week they welcome a Wisconsin team that sports an equally impressive win after beating LSU at Lambeau Field in week one.
The Badgers face personnel questions of their own, notably on offense where injuries and ineffectiveness have shaken up the depth chart, but pose a solid test for MSU.
Can the Spartans move on from the emotional high of winning in South Bend and take care of the Big Ten opener on their home turf or will back-to-back big games prove to be too much to handle?
Wisconsin Offense vs Michigan State Defense
- Leading Passer: QB Bart Houston — 44-for-71 (61.9%), 527 yards, 2 TD/2 INT
- Leader Rusher: RB Corey Clement — 42 carries, 197 yards, 3 TD
- Leading Receiver: WR Robert Wheelwright — 12 catches, 194 yards, 0 TD
- Leading Tackler: LB Riley Bullough — 12 tackles, 2 TFL
- Leading Sack Artist: LB Andrew Dowell/DE Evan Jones/DT Raequan Williams (tie) — 1 sack
- Leading Ball Hawk: LB Andrew Dowell/LB Jon Reschke (tie) — 1 INT
The Badger offense is in a state of flux, starting at quarterback.
Redshirt senior Bart Houston (#AllCFBNameTeam) started in the win over LSU, but threw two interceptions and no touchdowns. He bounced back with a tidy 231 yard, two TD, zero pick game against Akron but was unable to get anything going against Georgia Southern and was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook.
Hornibrook, a southpaw, was able to help avert disaster and sealed the 23-17 win by going 8-for-12 for 122 yards, a TD and an INT. This, on the back of a pretty good showing in mop-up action against Akron (5-for-5, 61-yards, one TD) was enough to earn him the starting nod this Saturday.
His top three targets, wideouts Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli (who was dinged up last week), have accounted for 60% of the catches and 70% of the yardage through the air thus far this season. All three have good size — Wheelwright is 6’3”, Peavy 6’1” and Fumagalli, the biggest of the bunch, at 6’6” — and will pose matchup issues, particularly in the red zone.
It will be interesting to see how MSU rotates its corners, as whoever plays will be expected to be active against the run. Vayante Copeland and Tyson Smith are bigger and more physical than the rest of the bunch and will probably get the most burn.
Hornibrook has weapons, and a typical Wisconsin offensive line protecting him — although left guards Jon Dietzen (leg) and Micah Kapoi (foot) are out and questionable, respectively — but he is starting his first game in a very hostile environment against a very good team. He will need all the help he can get from a Badger backfield that is not in the best of shape.
Through the first two outings senior Corey Clement was the workhorse, scoring three times and accumulating almost 200 yards in just six quarters, but an ankle injury has kept him out since. Coach Paul Chryst said there was “a chance” he could go this week and the Badgers had better hope he can, because he’s not the only banged up ballcarrier.
Backup Taiwan Deal (ankle) is listed as questionable and freshman Bradrick Shaw (shoulder) has already been ruled out. That leaves senior Dare Ogunbowale, who had a workmanlike 20 carries for 65 yards and TD last week. If none of the walking wounded can contribute expect to see Ogunbowale get the ball close to 30 times.
MSU’s defense answered a lot of questions during the win over ND, most importantly, could they stop the run. Short answer: yes. The Spartan front seven did an incredible job against one of the alleged best offensive lines in the country and held the Irish to 57 yards on 26 carries.
They didn’t rack up a ton of sacks but the defensive line did a great job at containing the Irish runners and forcing them to the middle where a host of talented linebackers awaited them. The Wisconsin running game is more old-school between the tackles but that should play to MSU’s favor given the depth and talent at linebacker.
The Badgers had trouble moving the ball against an 0-3 Sun Belt team. It’s hard to expect them to do much better against Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke.
Michigan State Offense vs Wisconsin Defense
- Leading Passer: QB Tyler O’Connor — 32-for-44 (72.7%), 5 TD/2 INT
- Leader Rusher: RB LJ Scott — 42 carries, 203 yards, 2 TD
- Leading Receiver: WR RJ Shelton — 8 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD
- Leading Tackler: LB Jack Cichy — 17 tackles, 2 TFL
- Leading Sack Artist: LB TJ Watt/DE Alec James (Tie) — 2 sacks
- Leading Ball Hawk: CB Boyd Anderson/S D’Cota Dixon/S Leo Musso (tie) - 1 INT
Even more impressive than the front seven was the play of offensive line against Notre Dame. I covered it in an article earlier this week but if this group is legit and can (please god) stay healthy they allow the Spartans to dictate how games are played. That generally leads to wins and wins are good #analysis.
There is no rest for the hog mollies with Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense coming to town. Center Kodi Keiler, along with likely subs Benny McGowan and Brian Allen, will have to be sharp when calling out protections. The 3-4 look allows for more exotic blitz packages and the Badgers have talented outside linebackers in TJ Watt (2 sacks/2 TFL) and Vince Biegel (1 sacks/2 TFL). Tight End Josiah Price will also be called upon to help protect those edges.
Watt and Biegel bookend Wisconsin’s two leading tacklers, Jack Cichy (17 tackles) and TJ Edwards (13 tackles), completing a solid unit that managed to “contain” Leonard Fournette. Ok, maybe contain is the wrong word. The LSU running back still finished with 23 carries for 138 yards (almost six yards per carry) but they did manage to keep him out of the end zone. So there’s that?
Comparing backs to Fournette isn’t very fair, but LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes create a dynamite 1-2 punch. Wisconsin will get no break when it comes to slowing this running attack and if that duo (and maybe Madre London?) can average six yards a carry the way LSU did, MSU should be in great shape.
The more interesting development will be through the air, where Wisconsin has not faced a Big Ten caliber quarterback. The Badger secondary did hold Akron — which has thrown for 940 yards in three games — to 136 yards and rendered LSU quarterback Brandon Harris pretty ineffective but two things worth noting here.
First, Akron’s other two opponents have been VMI and Marshall. Not exactly powerhouses. Secondly, LSU’s Harris has since been benched for ex-Purdue QB Danny Etling. Suffice it to say we can take both of these defensive performances with a grain of salt.
Last week, the Badgers were beat up by Georgia Southern quarterback Conner Manning (no it wasn’t Peyton in disguise) to the tune of 20-for-29, 269 yards and a TD, so there are holes.
Tyler O’Connor presents a bigger challenge than any of the aforementioned signal callers — except Peyton, I guess. He had some questionable throws but for the most part was impressive a week ago. The redshirt senior appears to be in control of the offense and has quickly developed a rapport with RJ Shelton, Monty Madaris and Corley.
With two of his three careers starts coming in wins at Ohio State and Notre Dame, it’s also safe to say no stage is too big. Whether the coaches allow him to turn things loose is another question.
Dave Warner will wisely stick with the ground game for as long as possible, but should it scuffle will he let O’Connor take a shot at an experienced Wisconsin secondary that starts two juniors (CB Derrick Tindal, S D’Cota Dixon) and two seniors (CB Sojourn Shelton, S Leo Musso)?
Hopefully, we won’t find out.
This might be the only time all season when Michael Geiger is actually the best kicker in the game. Digest that for a moment and then realize that’s only because the man pictured above, Rafael Gaglianone, is injured.
In his place is senior Andrew Endicott, the Badgers kickoff specialist for the past three years, who has not attempted a field goal or extra point since high school. I doubt either side will be itching to send out the field goal unit in this one.
However, if this game plays as #B1G as it is set up to, you can expect to see a good amount of punting. WHO’S EXCITED?!?
Jake Hartbarger brings out the best in me, man. Once again, he was a weapon last week angling his punts well and keeping the dangerous CJ Sanders from popping any big ones.
Wisconsin has actually had two punters split duty this season in PJ Rosowski and Anthony Lotti. I can’t really shed any light on this beyond saying the more punters, the better.
Neither side does much in the way of returning the ball. Ogunbowale and Peavy split duties there for the Badgers, but neither has popped a big one this season. On the other side, it looks like Shelton is still the guy, despite misjudging a few punts a week ago.
Chris Vannini made a great point on The Only Podcast this week, the punt blocking is so consistently subpar that all MSU needs is someone who can field the ball cleanly. Shelton is probably the best option for that but he needs to improve his decision making, fast. Not being aggressive with fair catches costs the offense field position which can be devastating in a close game.
Let’s hope special teams coach Mark Snyder gets that into his head.
Bottom Line and Prediction
Michigan State’s victory in South Bend changed things.
After winning on the road, under the lights, against a hungry and talented — albeit questionably coached — Notre Dame team, external expectations have changed.
No longer will a nine win season be a success. No longer is there patience for the new receivers and quarterback. Now, after seeing that this team has the horses to compete with a powerhouse program, it’s about getting back to where they belong — the top of the Big Ten.
That climb starts this week.
Wisconsin is a well-coached, disciplined and talented team but the Spartans should win this game. Pure and simple.
They’re facing a quarterback starting his first career game who doesn’t have a healthy star running back to hand the ball to, they have more than enough weapons to make the Badgers pay for selling out against the run and a defense that should be able to dictate how the game is played.
This is not to say MSU is going to win by some landslide margin, any team that is able to beat LSU is not to be taken lightly, but it’s hard to picture the Badgers being able to pull another rabbit out of the hat. They need a great day from Hornibrook and some herculean performances from banged up running backs to do so.
After what we saw last weekend, picking against MSU at home in the Big Ten opener would be irresponsible.
LJ Scott runs for two touchdowns and the Spartans start their Big Ten season with a win.