Game of the Week: Badgers in for stiff test against stout Spartans
Wisconsin boasts the Big Ten's top offense, Michigan State its top defense
The Spartans' aggressiveness on defense has led to accusations of dirty play
Russell Wilson should prove to be the difference, keep the Badgers unbeaten
Michigan State and Wisconsin have developed a healthy Big Ten rivalry over the years, and it doesn't even involve a trophy. What it has involved for roughly 20 seasons are programs that typically lean heavily on the run, feature dominant offensive lines and field physical defenses. Both teams are using that formula this year to contend for the Big Ten championship. Due to a schedule adjustment in the wake of Nebraska's Big Ten jump, Wisconsin will travel to East Lansing for the second consecutive season. ESPN's GameDay will be on hand to witness the No. 6 Badgers knocking heads with the No. 16 Spartans as the second half of the season gets underway and the field of BCS contenders begins to narrow.
1. May the stronger team win: Wisconsin's offense has rightly been praised for its enviable balance of power and finesse, with an outstanding offensive line dominating opponents all season. Quarterback Russell Wilson has fit in seamlessly in his first year in Madison, adding a downfield passing dimension to the offense while also bringing the ability to run for first downs on busted plays. As for the running game, Montee Ball already has 17 touchdowns and James White is on pace for over 800 yards as his backup. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in points (50.2), rushing yards (257.5), passing yards (265.7) and total yards (523.1).
Michigan State counters with the Big Ten's top rush defense (67), passing defense (119.2) and total defense (186.2). State has 21 sacks (including 16 in the last two weeks), led by linebacker Denicos Allen's 4.5, and defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Marcus Rush can disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage. The secondary is led by safeties Trenton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis, the latter of whom sealed the Michigan win with an interception return for a touchdown. Neither team can claim it has faced strong competition. MSU has played three teams with offenses ranked No. 84 or worse plus an FCS team; Wisconsin hasn't faced a top 50 defense yet. That all changes Saturday.
2. Defense isn't the only 'D' word associated with Sparty: Six personal foul penalties on Michigan State last Saturday, particularly two by William Gholston that earned him a suspension for Saturday's game, have prompted accusations of dirty play. MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi didn't seem overly concerned when he talked to SI's Andy Staples following the Michigan win, implying that he does not want to restrain his players' aggression. MSU coach Mark Dantonio was asked five times about the perception of his program's "aggressiveness" at this week's press conference, and he essentially said he was proud of how the Spartans play. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema revealed he will give his scout team freedom to antagonize his starters during practice. "I want guys to have the reaction that they need to have on Saturday, and, unfortunately, the only way you do that is to kind of practice it and rep it." The hitting will be hard on Saturday night. It will be interesting to see if it stays between the whistles.
3. Time to start impressing the computer rankings: Despite winning every game by at least 31 points, Wisconsin sports an average computer ranking of 11 due to weak competition (and the absurd rule that margin of victory is not involved in the calculation). This is the first of three remaining regular-season games the Badgers have against teams that have an average computer ranking in the Top 25, plus a likely appearance in the Big Ten championship game (possibly against Michigan State). The Badgers have national championship aspirations and the talent to beat any team on any given day. Working their way from their current spot of No. 6 in the BCS standings up to No. 1 or 2 will at the very least require an unblemished record.
Wisconsin enters the game as a 7.5-point favorite. The Badgers are a remarkable 12-0-1 against the spread in their last 13 games. Michigan State is 4-10 against the spread as an underdog the last four years, though its lone cover as a home dog during that period came last year against Wisconsin.
Since losing to Michigan State last year, Wisconsin has won nine straight Big Ten games by an average of 29.5 points.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup. Earlier this season, he evaluated Wisconsin's Nick Toon and Peter Konz.
DT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State: Worthy is a disruptive playmaker up front and a lineman who easily defeats blocks, then sets up shop in the opponent's backfield. His consistency and intensity are a concern and have been questioned by scouts. The junior has the tools to be a big-time NFL player if he applies himself on an every down basis and plays up to his ability. Grade: First-round prospect.
QB Kirk Cousins, Michigan State: The senior possesses the physical skills necessary to compete for a starting job in the NFL. Cousins is an accurate passer with a live arm, yet his decision-making and untimely interceptions concern NFL scouts. Grade: Fourth-round prospect.
QB Russell Wilson, Wisconsin: Wilson is a terrific athlete with an NFL arm, yet needs to improve his throwing mechanics to make him a more accurate passer. Pre-daft workouts will be critical for Wilson. Grade: Fifth-round prospect.
G Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: Zeitler is yet another legitimate offensive line prospect Wisconsin is grooming for the NFL. He's strong, well-built and controls defenders once he gets his hands on them. Zeitler will have a great opportunity to prove his worth in this game against a terrific Michigan State defensive line. Grade: Fifth-round prospect.
Michigan State will presumably do everything it can to slow Wisconsin's running game, and the Spartans have the front seven to do it. The return of wideout Nick Toon will help Wilson test MSU's secondary should the Badgers fail to establish the run. On the other side, Cousins has been really solid at home and Edwin Baker showed against Michigan he can be a game-controlling back. Michigan State beat Wisconsin 34-24 last year, but needed a punt return for a touchdown and two fourth-down conversions to do so. Wilson will prove to be the difference in a hard-fought battle. WISCONSIN 31, MICHIGAN STATE 20