The Badgers enter the contest following a 3-0 start to the season against three unique non-conference opponents.
As the game marks the opening of Big Ten play, Wisconsin hopes to use the game against Michigan State to evaluate where it stands in the conference, and perhaps prove it has gotten better since the last time the two played.
“It’s our coming-out party now,” running back John Clay said. “It’s the Big Ten opener, (and) we’re going to show everybody in this conference what we’re made of and what we can do. This is a good step to showing the Big Ten what’s going to happen in Wisconsin.”
Clay has perhaps the most to prove of anyone involved in the game after his disappointing performance last week against Wofford.
Following his elevation to the starting role in the Wisconsin backfield, Clay carried the ball just 12 times for 70 yards against the Terriers. More importantly, however, the sophomore fumbled the ball three times, leading to one of three turnovers on the day for UW.
Yet, Bielema remains confident in his running back.
“I don’t mean to — believe me — I don’t mean to minimize six fumbles on Saturday, but what I do want (people) to understand, you know, through 15 games, John Clay put the ball on the ground four times,” Bielema said. “You know, to put it down three times in one game is unacceptable, but it’s not like this is something that’s been a chronic issue.”
Last year’s loss in East Lansing ranked among the worst of the year for Wisconsin, as the Badgers had a chance to win their second straight game and bounce back from four consecutive losses earlier in the season.
Of course, the loss would have been easier to handle had it not been for all the mistakes made by Bielema’s squad that allowed Michigan State to erase an 11-point lead.
In particular, the head coach made a couple mistakes late in the fourth quarter, including his own 15-yard penalty for some choice words yelled at the referee and an ill-advised timeout call that allowed the Spartans to line up and kick a game-winning field goal.
“I said something that I should not have said, in a tone that I should not have said it, in a way that my mother wouldn’t be happy with. So I know that,” Bielema said. “On the same account, you know, the part that I really took forward from that was my reaction to it.”
This season, much like Wisconsin, the Michigan State offense looks much different than it did a year ago due to a couple significant departures.
Most noticeably, running back Javon Ringer is gone after being drafted in the fifth round (173rd overall) by the Tennessee Titans. Ringer rushed for 1,637 yards last season to lead the Spartan offense with an average of 125 yards per game.
Also gone is quarterback Brian Hoyer, who threw for 2,404 yards (an average of 185 per game) and nine touchdowns in 2008. And with the departures of Hoyer and Ringer, the Spartans have had to replace a large majority of their offense from last season.
Also like the Badgers, they have had a two-quarterback and two-running back system.
Redshirt freshman Coulton Ray has split time with true freshman Larry Caper in the backfield, and though sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol have split time behind center, Cousins has been the true story for the MSU offense.
Cousins has thrown for more than 216 yards per game and five touchdowns with just one interception, though it proved costly in the Spartans week three loss at Notre Dame.
“They’ve got good personnel. I think offensively what I see is they’ve gone through a little bit of what we did, you know, not knowing who the quarterback is going to be,” Bielema said. “Both quarterbacks definitely have skill levels that can help a football team win. Running back has been a little bit by committee. I know they’re really liking a freshman and seen where he’s at out front. They’re physical. They’re big.”
After starting last season with four straight losses in conference play, the Badgers know the importance of getting off to a good start Saturday against the Spartans. Still, quarterback Scott Tolzien said practices have not been much different than in the first three weeks.
So as the Big Ten season gets ready to kick off, Tolzien and the Badgers’ biggest goal is to continue to improve from the season’s first three games.