Through six weeks and four straight home games, the Wisconsin Badgers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) find themselves undefeated atop the Big Ten West, mimicking their start to the 2017 campaign with multiple early season blowout wins.
Jonathan Taylor is the only running back in the Heisman conversation, the Badger defense is ranked highest in the country and the re-enrollment of Quintez Cephus has elevated the receiving corps to a dangerous level. Everything is clicking for Wisconsin.
The only question is, will this winning formula stand throughout the year?
While The Ohio State University prepared the city of Columbus for the Badgers’ late October visit, Michigan State entered the picture. The Spartans were outgunned at the Horseshoe a week ago, falling 34–10 after giving the Buckeye faithful a scare through about one quarter of play.
Michigan State’s defense forced Heisman contender Justin Fields to throw his first interception of the year and — barring multiple missed opportunities on a short field — could have jumped out to an early 14 point lead. Ultimately, the Spartans failed to recover from self-inflicted damage and the talent gap eventually caught up to them.
Wisconsin is coming off its third dominant shutout victory of the season and its second against a Mid American Conference opponent.
Kent State had no answer for Taylor, who tallied 186 rushing yards in three quarters. The Badgers rode his five all-purpose touchdowns to an easy 48–0 win. Against the stingy Spartan defensive front however, the chemistry between junior quarterback Jack Coan and his talented receivers will be critical in complementing the star back.
After impressing against Michigan and non-conference opponents early in 2019, Coan had a rough outing against Northwestern, a team which prides itself on harassing opposing passing units. His confidence seemed to bounce back against the Golden Flashes, but performing at the highest level versus Michigan State is crucial for his seasonal aspirations.
Establishing a dynamic rhythm of offense will be a key facet of this weekend’s first quarter. Thus far in 2019, every Badger opening drive has ended in a touchdown, and another against the Spartans would place momentum in the home team’s favor. This necessitates a mix of run and pass — specifically play action — where Coan can find his favorite targets downfield early on and gain a beat on Michigan State’s aggressive defense.
The betting line favors the Badgers by 10.5 in a low scoring game. In October Big Ten matchups, it would be unwise to predict anything else. The margin of error only tightens as the regular season progresses and teams become more dialed into their game plans. Spartans Head Coach Mike Dantonio will have his team angry and ready to spoil the Badgers’ playoff hopes with 60 minutes of physical play.
Michigan State possesses an offense that can be explosive — if they find a weakness in a defense early — and yet scored only seven points against an Arizona State team that gave up 34 to Colorado.
Its safe to say Spartan QB Brian Lewerke has been up and down thus far, but the Badgers’ tone-setting linebackers still have plenty of work cut out for them on Saturday as highly talented running back Elijah Collins leads a ground game that — aside from last week — has been very productive. The Wisconsin secondary has been surprisingly good too, becoming a hard-hitting group that keeps offenses in front of them.
With the assistance of Camp Randall’s electric atmosphere for an unprecedented fifth consecutive week, Wisconsin has little to gain and all to lose from what on paper is a very winnable contest. As kickoff approaches, there are unknowns Head Coach Paul Chryst hopes to have answered.
Will Coan be able to dissect a sound Spartan defense? Will Taylor continue to reach 100 yards and flourish in the redzone? Will the best defense in the Big Ten shut down a conference opponent yet again?
In the Big Ten, nothing is certain except the pressure on both sides — Michigan State needs to bounce back, an upset win to ignite and reestablish itself. The Badgers, meanwhile, face sky high expectations. Saturday is another chance for Wisconsin to make a nationwide statement before the long road to the college football playoff finally takes the Badgers away from Camp Randall.