The matchup: YOUR Michigan State Spartans vs. the Wisconsin Badgers
Kickoff: 8:17 p.m., Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
The Line: Wisconsin by 10
It’s now about 12 hours before kickoff in one of the biggest games of the past decade for Michigan State football, but apparently no one told the Big Ten that Wisconsin is already going to the Rose Bowl, because they’re still insisting on holding the game.
In a detail unrelated to any of the football analysis that follows, I got in the car last night and someone on sports radio was talking about how Wisconsin was going to win. Fine. But when posed with the question, “How can MSU pull this off (again)?” said talking head replied with “Well, they’ll have to play good defense, and they’ll have to do it without cheating.” Look here sir. That defense gave up the fewest yards per game in the Big 10. Yes, even fewer than Wisconsin. They had no penalties in the first matchup. Just because you saw a YouTube video of William Gholston trying to give Denard Robinson a Swedish neck massage does not mean Michigan State has a defense full of cheaters. They have a defense full of beasts and head hunters.
On to the matchup! There are a few key points that will determine the outcome of this game, and I’m going to dig into them below. Quick summary: Running game, non-offensive scoring, pass pressure and emotional magnitude.
Key to victory 1: The running game. One thing most people seem to agree on is that running the ball will be of the utmost importance in this game. For the Spartans, this means they need to execute the running game better than they have at times this season and contain Montee “Moneyball” Ball. The key to Michigan State getting some significant yardage on the ground is it’s young offense line, which has recently shaped up into a decent blocking unit. If Le’veon Bell can get in the neighborhood of 100 yards, it should do wonders for the Spartans passing game and offensive rhythm.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State needs to exploit Wisconsin’s somewhat patchwork offensive line (more on this later). Montee Ball is a strong, tough back, but not extremely explosive and if MSU can take away the inside, Wisconsin will be forced to work him to the edges of the field, where he can be dangerous, but not lethal.
Key to victory 2: Non-offensive scoring. I know this is kind of a dumb way to phrase this, but the bottom line is, in each of MSU’s past two victories over Wisconsin, the offense has gotten help from either the special teams, defense or both. Be it a punt return, a pick-6, blocked field goal or punt, MSU needs points on the board from a unit other than the offense to win this game. Look out for Keshawn Martin in the return game — he’s been talking all week about how much faster he is on turf than on grass.
Key to victory 3: Pass pressure. This is where Wisconsin’s injuries on the offensive line will come into play. Their All Big 10 center, senior Peter Konz, is doubtful for this game, with a dislocated ankle. That means a sophomore will be stepping in at center, with another sophomore taking his place at guard. These guys have had a few starts in this rotation, and Bielma has said he’s not worried about it, but you had better believe Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickleman will be looking for cracks in that armor. If MSU can get consistent pressure on Wilson, forcing him to throw quickly while containing his ability to scramble, it will go a long way toward keeping the Wisconsin offense out of rhythm. Basically, in their pass defense, MSU has to do everything they did right in the first game, where Wilson was virtually a non-factor until Wisconin’s fourth quarter come back. Also on the pass defense, the Spartans excellent secondary needs to continue to play well, especially in matchups against the much larger Abbredaris. Fun fact! Did you know the MSU defense has 16 interceptions this season, let by senior Robinson and sophomore Lewis? (Kirk has thrown 6, almost a 4:1 takeaway to turnover ratio)
Key to victory 4: Emotional magnitude. I would be lying if I said the idea of Wisconsin replaying the Rocket in their locker room over and over again leading up to this game didn’t scare me. But it seems like Bielma is trying to take away the “revenge” aspect of this game. I don’t know if I’m buying it, but it seems like revenge against MSU is less important for the Badgers. On Michigan State’s side, the narrative is all about respect. Players know Wisconsin got ‘their’ bid to the Rose Bowl last year. They feel like they belong there this year. But this is a team that can play nervy, from Cousins on down, and they’ll have to harness all of those emotions into focused play, not stupid penalties and bad decisions.
Bonus key to victory: Michigan State is a team that tends to play to the level of its opponent. In this case, that works out well for them, but they cannot come out flat or get down early, like they did in the first matchup against Wisconsin. The Spartans, who have been an awful first quarter team all year need to strike early and often. Another element that may play a role is trick plays. After a season defined by trick plays last year, Mark Dantonio has sometimes gone to the trick play in the wrong circumstances this year, with disastrous results (fake field goal pt. 2 against Notre Dame, anyone?) The bottom line is, if MSU can execute in all three phases and keep their emotions under control, they can and will come away with a victory here. My prediction?
Michigan State: 24, Wisconsin 20
Game ball: Keshawn Martin, who returns a punt for a TD, 5 receptions for 75 yds and a TD