CHICAGO — In a room full of about 48 football players and head coaches, there is no shortage of confidence. Each player is incredibly hopeful about the upcoming season, never willing to admit nerves about their chances, especially in rivalry matchups.
The Big Ten is riddled with rivalries, but perhaps the newest one is between two teams that sit atop the conference — Wisconsin and Michigan State.
In what are quickly becoming go-to replay games, the 2011 MSU-UW games are fairly easy to watch on repeat. And while players from both teams admit they’ll watch those games over and over, they tend to look away when things start to turn sour.
“I feel like it’s on every day, the Big Ten Championship or the one before it,” Wisconsin offensive lineman Ricky Wagner said. “I sometimes watch them just a little bit … sometimes I look away.”
With so much to discuss within the Big Ten, the burgeoning rivalry between Bucky and Sparty has been one of several much-discussed topics.
After an unbelievable Hail Mary finish in the regular season matchup, followed by a rematch in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game just as intense as the first game — and with opposite outcomes — there’s no real reason why the rivalry shouldn’t be growing.
“The reason we’ve had such a rivalry with Wisconsin is not only have they been close games that we play with them, but they’ve been games that mean a lot,” MSU senior linebacker Will Compton said. “… You remember the Big Ten Championship, you remember the Hail Mary pass. You always think, ‘Oh, that was against Wisconsin,’ so they’re always in you’re head … it’s been a great tradition here the last couple of years.”
Unlike most rivalries where mutual hate is a common theme, respect is what defines the Michigan State-Wisconsin matchup.
“The thing about Wisconsin is I respect them a lot as a team and I have a lot of people I do know at Wisconsin that I am affiliated with,” MSU senior linebacker Chris Norman said. “I have the utmost respect for their program and what those guys do and what they represent. That being said, it does change once you get on the field, especially because you want to win. But I’ve got a lot of love for Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball echoed Norman’s statement and immediately noted how strong its defense is as well.
This season, the Badgers welcome the Spartans into Camp Randall Oct. 27 in what is already a highly-anticipated affair.
“I know the next time we play Wisconsin I’m going to have an extra edge about me and I know they are going to have the same extra edge as well,” Norman said.
All eyes on Ricky
At Wisconsin, there might as well be a factory line producing offensive lineman, ready made for the Outland Trophy and a first round draft pick. This year’s big guy? Senior Ricky Wagner.
Describing the 6-foot-6, 322 pound left tackle reserved or shy is an understatement. And while he’s not as vocal as his fellow spotlighted teammate Ball, Wagner isn’t worried about the new publicity he’s receiving.
“I really don’t have any pressure on me,” Wagner said. “It might seem like I do, but I don’t feel it at all.
“I want to be the best O-lineman in the nation. I think that’s everybody’s goal playing the position, but I really think I can accomplish that if I just keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
Now the veteran leader of the offensive line, Wagner said the main focus this off season has been getting the younger guys up to speed and, in his opinion, things have been going well.
A more mature defense
Representing Wisconsin’s defense at the Big Ten Media Days, senior linebacker Mike Taylor spoke highly of the upcoming season — even in the face of the recent loss of defensive lineman Jordan Kohout, who recently ended his football career due to medical issues.
“On defense we should be pretty good, maybe the best we’ve had in awhile,” Taylor said. “Then again that’s just talk, you’ve got to wait until the season starts … we’re a little older this year on defense … I’ve played with all these guys, we’re almost the same age, you just build this bond and trust to each other that you want to play for each other.”
Last season Taylor led the defense with 150 tackles. Fellow linebacker, junior Chris Borland wasn’t far behind with 143. The duo are expected to be just as potent in 2012, but when asked about it, Taylor immediately began speaking about another linebacker — junior Ethan Armstrong.
“This summer, just because me and Ethan Armstrong had the same hip surgery, we’ve been around each other a lot and kind of built a pretty good relationship,” Taylor said. “I’m not saying he’s going to be the other linebacker. I’m not saying I’m going to be. Going into the year, it’s a blank slate for everyone.”
Overall, Taylor was extremely positive about what his defense is capable of in the upcoming season, especially with their game-experience, but remained cautious, noting they still have to play a game first.
Kelly is a senior majoring in journalism. What are you worries concerning the 2012 Badgers? Let her know @kellymerickson.