The Wisconsin defense’s swagger is back; Montee Ball and James White are running with renewed fury. Both are about to run into their biggest challenge of the season: Michigan State.
As the Badgers’ offense continues to build a consistent identity behind a rushing attack that has pounded its way to at least 300 yards in each of its last two games, it will face the brick wall that is a Michigan State defense, allowing an average of just 100.2 rushing yards per game.
Anchored by physical powers along both edges of the defensive line in William Gholston and Marcus Rush, a talented front-seven awaits at Camp Randall Saturday.
“This is the best defense in the Big Ten, and they’re coming in with a full head of steam – obviously their defense is playing well,” offensive line coach Bart Miller said. “It’s a great challenge, and we’re looking forward to it, to see really how we compare to the rest of the conference.”
The game will serve as a kind of litmus test for the Badgers, as the offensive line must get an early push along the scrimmage for any success on the ground against a Michigan State defense that relies on a combination of raw power and intricate blitzes to befuddle opposing offenses.
With a linebacking corps stacked with talent providing extra support for the D-line, the Spartans’ defense sits at fifth nationally in total defense.
“A lot more aggressive,” Ball said of what separates the Spartans from other defenses UW has faced. “They really fly fast toward the football, and once the momentum’s on their side, it’s hard to get it back. So we [need] to make sure we don’t give them any momentum.”
But a resurgent Ball, who has now crossed the century mark in three straight games, backed up by White averaging an explosive 6.9 yards per touch, may be the recipe to wear down Michigan State’s defense.
And while no Leaders Division title implications are on the line against the Spartans, there’s no shortage of history between Wisconsin and Michigan State. After picking up their first loss of the year on a last-second MSU Hail Mary into the end zone in East Lansing, Mich., a year ago, the Badgers earned some sense of vindication with a victory in the Big Ten Championship Game.
A year later, the teams sit in vastly different roles. The Badgers play a redshirt freshman in Joel Stave under center, their offense riding its talented tailbacks to scoring drives. The Spartans, finally without the venerable Kirk Cousins – a three-year starter – at quarterback, have their own set out challenges.
Michigan State has lost four of its first eight games, three of them coming by a combined six points. A first-year starter of its own in junior Andrew Maxwell has taken the reigns at quarterback for the Spartans and showed the typical signs of a developing quarterback with eight interceptions this season.
“He’s got tremendous poise,” UW secondary coach Ben Strickland said of Maxell. “A couple of the picks he’s thrown is tipped balls, and that’s kind of a chance deal. For us, if the opportunities come we have to just take advantage of that, and that’s what good defenses and great defenses do.”
In addition to running back Le’Veon Bell appearing out of the backfield, Strickland said a young group of MSU receivers – led by sophomore receiver Keith Mumphery with 349 yards – continues to develop and makes Maxwell all the more dangerous in the pocket.
Though Maxwell, much like Stave, feeds off the play-action for a defense that stills builds its drives along the ground. Bell, a physical specimen at 6-foot-2, 244 pounds, will attempt to plow through a Wisconsin defense that has not surrendered more than 14 points in each of its last three games.
Plowing his way to an average of 146 yards per game and eight touchdowns this year, Bell, the workhorse of the Michigan State offense, faces a UW defense surrendering only 114 rushing yards per game.
“I think everybody knows what kind of game this is going to be – whoever wins that line of scrimmage is going to win the game,” Miller said.
As a pair of physical, classic Big Ten offenses clash in Madison for the first time since 2009, the clock-eating run drives could mean a game where points are few and yards are sparse.
It’s a role defensive tackle Ethan Hemer and the rest of the Badgers’ defense are embracing. The Big Ten title may not be on the line, but for a Wisconsin team searching for a marquee win, pride most certainly is.
“I think we [have] a lot more confidence,” Hemer said. “I think we’re a defense that is ready to play every game because of the way we prepare, and also we have a little bit more confidence and swagger about us now. We like to have fun – when you’re a defense that likes to have fun, you make plays.”
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