From a health standpoint, Big Ten play couldn’t have started at a better time for the Wisconsin football team.
The Badgers have been relatively blessed on the injury front this season, the only major loss being outside linebacker Chris Borland.
So when No. 11 Wisconsin takes the field in East Lansing, Mich., Saturday, the No. 24 Michigan State Spartans can expect to see the Badgers as strong as they might be all season. The question there is, will it be enough?
The Badgers haven’t gotten much national love for grinding out a victory against an Arizona State squad that played itself out of its game against Oregon last weekend, or for demolishing FCS Austin Peay 70-3. Two voters in the AP poll didn’t even rank Wisconsin in their ballots this week.
Michigan State entered the polls after its can-you-believe-it win over Notre Dame two weeks ago, beating the Fighting Irish on a beautifully executed fake field goal in overtime. Head coach Mark Dantonio is set to return to the sideline after suffering a small heart attack following the Spartans’ win two weeks ago.
Both teams are unbeaten at 4-0 heading into tomorrow’s game, and there are a number of similarities between the squads. In Scott Tolzien and Kirk Cousins, both UW and MSU feature experienced signal callers ranked in the top 16 nationally in quarterback rating.
While the Spartans feature a one-two punch of running backs in Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell, it’s Cousins who makes the offense go. The Badger pass rush is eager to get some hits in on MSU’s junior quarterback.
“We’re real excited for that, because if you start hitting a quarterback, he’s going to start getting rattled,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “When he gets rattled, he starts making poor decisions, that’s what we’re trying to do, force him into poor decisions, so we can get turnovers and takeaways. At the end of the day, that’s what wins football games.”
After some early fumbling problems, the Badgers didn’t turn the ball over once in their last two games. Turnovers were a big reason Wisconsin failed tests last season against Ohio State and Iowa. Tolzien has played clean games over the past two weeks, and against MSU, he gets the added benefit of two veteran receivers returning.
Junior Nick Toon has been out since the first week of the season with a turf toe injury, but is set to start against the Spartans. Toon was UW’s leading wide receiver last season and gives the Badgers a physical presence going over the middle of the field.
“One thing [Toon] did, he’s coming back, he’s got fresh legs,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “He hasn’t gone through the two week grind of practice all those other guys did. So you notice a little difference with him.”
Senior David Gilreath is also going to play, though he might not start. Gilreath missed the last two weeks with a concussion suffered against San Jose State. While the Minnesota-native has handled kick and punt returns his whole Wisconsin career, the coaching staff isn’t going to rush him back into the return game. Freshman running back James White will continue to return kicks, while safety Aaron Henry will take over on punt returns.
While the Arizona State game proved the Badgers had a way to go on special teams, one of Wisconsin’s biggest strengths this season has come on the penalty front. The Badgers are tied for second in the nation in fewest penalties per game.
“We know penalties are a big thing in this game,” running back John Clay said. “We take pride in trying to be the less-penalized team out on the field.”
Michigan State, despite being undefeated, has had 11 penalties in three of its four games, and is 114th in the FBS in total penalties.
Both teams are aware of the importance of playing a clean game. In 2008, one of Wisconsin’s worst losses in the Bret Bielema era came at Spartan Stadium. Bielema himself earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that helped spark an MSU comeback late in the game. Wisconsin had a chance to close the game out, but a 21-yard run by Clay was negated by a holding penalty. The Badgers lost the game 25-24.
“Penalties are huge. Wisconsin people have to look no further than Monday night, the Packer game,” Watt said. “Penalties can play an absolutely huge part in a football game.”
A Wisconsin win could arguably be Bielema’s biggest victory since becoming head coach. A victory in East Lansing would be the first time the Badgers have beaten a ranked opponent on the road since Barry Alvarez was head coach.
“We’re both ranked teams; we’re both undefeated teams,” Clay said. “Going there in their house, they’re going to be motivated to keep that ranking, and we’re going to be motivated to stay undefeated too.”