Play the western music. Come Saturday, it’s high noon in the Big Ten. Wisconsin has come back – like Clint Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter” – to paint the town red and settle the score with Michigan State once and for all. The Spartans will be looking to advance to its first Rose Bowl since 1988. Wisconsin will be looking to avenge the loss that ended its BCS title hopes, earning a second consecutive berth to the “Granddaddy of Them All.” Two teams will enter. One team will win. It’s going to be an old fashioned showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Key 1: Mistakes must be limited
It’s important to understand what led to Wisconsin being bested by Michigan State the last time around. Simply put, the Badgers beat themselves. An intentional grounding penalty in the end zone, two interceptions, a blocked kick and a blocked punt for a touchdown effectively dug the Badgers their own grave. Often, the Badgers’ mistakes came at key junctures in the game or ended up costing UW touchdowns. Fourth-and-two and third and 11, two downs that could have stopped Michigan State drives, were instead two plays where the Spartans scored big touchdowns. A linebacker being sucked inside and fooled on a double reverse, multiple missed tackles on plays that ended up as Spartan touchdowns – this cannot happen again.
What is even more frustrating is the fact that Wisconsin allowed most of the damage to occur in a single quarter. In the first quarter, the Badgers looked in command with a 14-0 lead. However, the momentum was stolen through all of the second quarter, as the Spartans scored 23 unanswered points, all coming off of the Badgers’ first half miscues. The safety, blocked kick and blocked punt helped score all 23 of the second quarter points. If the Badgers could have even corrected one mistake, the game would have been totally different. The multiple turnovers and miscues in the game also led to one of the rare games in which Wisconsin did not dominate the battle for time of possession. If the Badgers avoid mistakes and turnovers, they should dictate the tempo of this game much like they did in the first quarter in East Lansing, Mich.
Key 2: Force third and long, make Cousins eat turf
The Spartans actually have a real threat to throw the ball at quarterback, unlike the previous offenses the Badgers have faced since. It can be argued that the only true passing threat the Badgers have faced in the conference all season is MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins. In fact, the last four opponents the Badgers have defeated possession quarterbacks that average some of the lowest passing yards per game in the conference. Cousins? He’s third in the league in passing yards per game, touchdowns and pass efficiency. Cousins is not a running quarterback, but he has shown multiple times throughout his career that he can beat teams with his arm. The Badgers cannot allow him to sit comfortably in the pocket with his feet set on passing downs.
On third down, the Spartans and Cousins left their mark, as the team converted 50 percent (8-16) of their tries against the Badgers’ defense. Of the 16 third down plays of the game, 15 of them were pass attempts. Six of the Badgers’ eight stops on third down occurred when the Spartans faced a third and six or longer. On the seven third downs with five or less yards to go, the Badgers only stopped the Spartans twice.
The Badgers will need to force the Spartans into constant third-and-longs in order to force Cousins to wait longer in the pocket to find a receiver past the marker, giving the Badgers time to pass rush and pressure Cousins out of his comfort zone. In the last matchup with the Spartans, the Badgers recorded four sacks. Many of the receptions the Badgers got beat on were short patterns.
In the 31 times Cousins was able to throw the ball against the Badgers, the defense only managed to hurry Cousins five times. For most of the game, on passing plays it seemed like no one except Brendan Kelly was able to maintain solid pressure on Cousins. The Badgers will need to find ways to intimidate and harass Cousins on his pass plays if they hope to stifle the Michigan State offense. If Wisconsin can bring effective blitzes and get a solid four-man pass rush to get to Cousins early, the Badgers will benefit immensely. With pocket quarterbacks like Cousins, sometimes one big hit can lead to happy feet in the pocket.
Key 3: Playmakers must emerge in secondary, defensive line
It’s already known Wisconsin has arguably the two best offensive threats in the Big Ten, but it’s the defensive side of the football that will be the most essential in the rematch against the Spartans. While Wisconsin has two terrific linebackers in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor that boast more than 100 tackles each, the Badgers still lack the elite playmaking threat they had on the defensive line a season ago in J.J. Watt. While the entire Badger defensive line is very talented and each player is capable of getting a sack or two in any game, in the key moments of the two losses this season, the Badgers did not have that definitive stop or play that closed the game. Last year, most of the biggest defensive memories involved J.J. Watt pulling down a quarterback in the final minutes or seconds of the game. Do the Badgers have a dominant defensive lineman to harass Cousins throughout the contest Saturday?
For most of the season, the secondary has looked great, but big plays and miscues continue to make the Badgers look weak at times. Last weekend, Penn State opened up the game with a 44-yard touchdown through the air, which resulted most likely from a miscommunication on coverage. Against Ohio State, the Braxton Miller’s desperation heave to a wide open Devin Smith in the end zone with 20 seconds left just rubbed salt in an open wound for Badger fans. Cousins and the Michigan State passing attack led by wide receiver B.J. Cunningham will look to attack the Badger secondary. The Badgers have not faced a quarterback like Cousins since their last encounter, so the Wisconsin secondary will need to step up. UW failed to pick off Cousins even once the last time around; will it be different on Saturday?
All three of these factors will have to come together to send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl. In the Badgers’ two losses this season, including the previous loss to Michigan State, defensive mistakes and miscues have cost them. However, what is in the past is in the past. The Badgers can embrace the feeling of revenge, but what is the most important aspect come Saturday is the play of Wisconsin’s defense. If the Badgers can force just a few three and outs, look for a the offense to do what it has done all season: dominate opponents.
Nick is a senior majoring in English and history. Do the Badgers have what it takes to beat MSU this weekend on neutral soil? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.