The Badgers have talked about being a different team than last season, and on Saturday the Wisconsin football team proved they were different with a 38-30 victory over Michigan State.
Although the final score does not show it, the Badgers dominated a Spartan squad that looked out of sync from the beginning and struggled to score until late in the game, when they were already too far behind.
By holding MSU to just 17 points through the first 55 minutes, the UW defense showed just how good it could be Saturday at Camp Randall.
“I said all along I like this football team, and I was very adamant about that,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “We are going to have success this year based on the way we work. I thought they showed up today with a great attitude — they showed up and worked.”
Perhaps even more impressive than the defensive effort was the Wisconsin offense, which put up 38 points while rushing for nearly 200 yards and passing for more than 240.
Sophomore John Clay led the rushing attack, carrying the ball 32 times for 142 yards despite coming off the bench. It was Clay’s first 30-carry game of his career, something that helped the Racine native prove last week’s three-fumble performance was a fluke.
“I felt good throughout the game. My team was there to support me when I went down,” Clay said. “In the locker room they told me to keep my head up, that everybody has these days. They encouraged me to come out next and show everybody what I can do.”
No other Wisconsin rusher had more than 20 yards on the ground Saturday as Clay carried the bulk of the load.
Junior Scott Tolzien had a career day through the air, completing 19 of 31 passes for 243 yards and four touchdowns. Three of the scores came on passes of six, 15 and 23 yards to Garrett Graham, the last of which gave UW its largest lead of the game at 38-17.
Sophomore Nick Toon also pulled in a 19-yard touchdown pass to open the fourth quarter and give UW a 31-17 lead.
Tolzien recorded just the 10th four-touchdown game by a quarterback in school history.
The junior also earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors, the Conference announced Sunday night. Tolzien leads the conference in pass efficiency and ranks 13th in the nation.
“Graham was the guy who was open today; we have a lot of weapons in the passing game,” Tolzien said. “Each game it might bring out a new guy. … But whatever it takes, whoever is open, that’s who we have to get the ball to.”
Graham became the sixth UW receiver to catch three touchdown passes in a game. Coincidentally, the last one to do so, Owen Daniels in 2005, also was a tight end.
The two teams started slow offensively, but once the Badgers got on the board first with just over a minute remaining in the first quarter, the offense picked things up in a hurry.
Wisconsin scored two touchdowns in the second quarter on a pair of long drives (eight plays for 70 yards and 12 plays for 69 yards) to take a 21-7 lead into the locker room. Michigan State drew within seven points in the third with a field goal and touchdown sandwiched around a UW field goal, but the Badgers answered quickly and put the game away early in the fourth.
Unlike the two long drives in the second quarter, Wisconsin used two short possessions that resulted in a pair of Tolzien touchdown passes to extend its lead to 38-17.
The second of those touchdowns came as a result of a fumble recovered by J.J. Watt, one of four turnovers on the day for the Spartans. UW capitalized on all but one of those turnovers, putting up 21 points off turnovers to just three for MSU.
“It’s huge. Anytime you look at turnover possession, and even more importantly, points off turnovers that our offense can get getting those extra possessions, that is what we want to do,” senior captain Chris Maragos said. “The defense was able to make some plays and put them in the situation to score some points. It was good for us.”
Maragos led the way for Wisconsin in terms of takeaways, grabbing a pair of interceptions. The Racine native now has three interceptions in the Badgers’ first four games, giving him the team lead and putting him within one of Iowa’s Tyler Sash for the most in the Big Ten.
Although the stats do not show it, especially with a 91-yard touchdown pass added in the final minutes, the UW secondary in particular looked better than in the team’s first three games. They were especially impressive in shutting down MSU wide receiver Blair White, who finished with just one catch for eight yards.
“He’s the type of guy that makes their whole show run,” Maragos said. “We wanted to make sure that we took him out of the game and make sure that we were limiting what they do best.”