For years, both Wisconsin and Iowa had featured programs built on a power two-back running game and a massive front seven, mixing in the tight end with the offense and similar cover schemes with the defense.
Now more than ever, Bielema can add Michigan State to that list. With an efficient quarterback leading a power running game, a stout defensive line and an impressive linebacker, No.24 Michigan State and No.11 Wisconsin will look quite familiar to each other when the two schools play the Big Ten Conference opener Saturday in East Lansing.
"Especially now, more than ever, their offense and our offense are very similar," said Bielema. "They line up with two backs in the backfield. They'll spread you out and do different things -- similar to what we do. Then, defensively, a lot of the same coverages, same type of fronts. They like to bring pressure. It all starts up front, I think, with both teams so it is comparable."
The similarities start with the quarterbacks. Senior quarterback Scott Tolzien led the conference in pass efficiency last season and is second-best among active quarterbacks in the country with a .667 career completion percentage (minimum 20 games). In the last two games, without starting wide receivers Nick Toon and David Gilreath (both expected to play Saturday), Tolzien is 34 of 42 for 463 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, which translates into a 205.0 pass efficiency rating.
"I think he's played pretty solid and is progressively getting better," Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst said of Tolzien's last two games. "It helps having a guy that knows what his strengths are, weaknesses are and it helps us know who he is. If every guy can play within himself, it makes everybody better."
Finishing third in the conference last season in the efficiency rating, junior Kirk Cousins, like Tolzien, was dominate in his last start, completing 16 of 20 for 290 yards and two TDs to move the Spartans to 4-0 for the first time since 2007.
While Cousins has been good spreading around the wealth (like UW, MSU has three receivers with over 10 catches and 100 receiving yards), the ground game has been a big and balanced part of the attack. Running behind a line that features three seniors, one junior and a sophomore (shocking, another similarity), sophomore Edwin Baker (112.2 yards per game) and freshman Le'Veon Bel (99.0) are both in the top five in the conference's rushing category.
Those numbers are comparable to Wisconsin (4-0), as junior John Clay (125.2 per game) and freshman James White (67.2) have helped UW to average 257.5 yards per game rushing, tenth best in the country.
After finishing sixth in the conference last season, averaged 136.8 rushing yards per game, Michigan State has rushed for at least 200 yards in each game and has 12 rushing touchdowns.
"I think Arizona State was probably one of the better passing teams in the country that we'll play, but Michigan State is the most talented overall that we've play," Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren said. "They are very well rounded. They can throw, they can run and they are balanced in what they do."
Defensively led by All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones (team leader with 33 tackles), the Spartans rank third in the Big Ten in rushing defense, having allowed 341 rushing yards (85.2 yards per game) and one rushing touchdown.
The Spartans are one spot ahead of UW (94.5), as the Badgers have held 12 of their last 14 opponents under 100 yards rushing. But while UW has been slightly challenged in the ground game, the Spartans have not. The best rushing offense Wisconsin faced was Arizona State (47th at 169.3 per game), while Michigan State most challenging opponent was Notre Dame (99th at 110.8 per game).
"There's immense pride because our unit wants to be number one," junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Going into this game is going to be huge because we know both offenses are going to run the ball. This is the type of battle we signed up for coming into the Big Ten."
A big boost for the Spartans will be the return of MSU Coach Mark Dantonio. Less than two weeks after suffering a mild heart attack, Dantonio said he will help coach the team from the press box during Saturday's contest. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell coached the team last week in Dantonio absence, a 45-7 victory over Northern Colorado in a game where his team wore the letter ‘D' on the back of their helmets.
Dantonio was hospitalized shortly after leading Michigan State to an overtime victory over Notre Dame on Sept. 18 on a gutsy decision, calling a fake field goal attempt with the Spartans down three. Holder Aaron Bates took the snap and waited patiently for an open receiver downfield. That turned out to be Charlie Gantt, who grabbed the 29-yard touchdown catch to give the Spartans a 34-31 win.
He was back in his office Monday after meeting with his cardiologist and time will tell if Dantonio is ready to give his heart another shock like that play call.
"I am going to ease back into this, just like anyone would after any injury," said Dantonio, who underwent an angioplasty in which a stent was used to open a blocked blood vessel near the heart. "We don't discuss injuries, so why would we discuss mine? I am going to listen to our doctors, but I am going to ease back into this and do something daily with our football team. We'll start at ‘X' amount and build to back where it was."
The key for Wisconsin is to build on its start. Despite being 4-0 for the sixth time in the last nine seasons, the Badgers have yet to make a Rose Bowl, let alone a BCS game. A big red banner hangs over the McClain Center exit, saying the ‘Road to the Rose Bowl Begins Here.' As the Badgers walk underneath that sign and board the plane for East Lansing Friday, Wisconsin knows that a victory would be an important step in living up to the high outside expectations placed on its team.
"It's going to be the first time on the road in a very hostile environment," Bielema said. Michigan State's crowd will be all lathered up at a 2:30 game, and obviously because of Coach Dantonio and the things they're going through, there will be extra motivation there. But all we can do is worry about taking care of our business, and I think our guys are tuned into that.
"I really do believe this group, especially the 70 guys that will hop on the plane with us, they really do believe in what we do. There are no wandering eyes. There's no, ‘Oh, here we go again' or anything. It's just, ‘Okay, let's just do what we do.'"
No.11/9 Wisconsin (4-0, 0-0 Big Ten) vs. No.24/21 Michigan State (4-0, 0-0 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, October 2 at 2:30 p.m. CT
Stadium – Spartans Stadium (75,005/natural grass)
Television - ABC (Mike Patrick, Craig James and Quint Kessenich)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) and Satellite Sirus (ch. 91) and XM (ch. 197)
Series – Michigan State leads 27-21, including 14-7 in East Lansing
Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 38-30, on Sept. 26, 2009 in Madison
The home team has won each of the last five meetings between the two teams. The last victory by a visiting team was a 42-24 win by the Badgers in East Lansing on Oct. 26, 2002.
This will be the first meeting between the teams where both are ranked since Oct. 23, 1999. In that game, UW entered the game at No. 16 while Michigan State was ranked 11th. The Badgers jumped out to a 23-0 lead en route to a 40-10 win in Madison.
After losing eight straight to MSU from 1985- 92, Wisconsin has beaten the Spartans nine times in the last 13 meetings (the 1994 loss was later forfeited by Michigan State).
The last three games between the teams have been decided by an average of four points. The last game between the teams in East Lansing was won by MSU on a 44-yard field goal with seven seconds left in the game.
UW opens its 115th Big Ten campaign at Michigan State on Saturday. The Badgers are 57-53-4 in Big Ten openers, including 25-28-3 on the road. Wisconsin is 2-2 under Bret Bielema in conference openers.
Wisconsin vs. Michigan State is one of just three games in the country this week to pit to a pair of 4-0 teams against each other. The others are Stanford at Oregon and Florida at Alabama.
The Badgers' 70 points against Austin Peay set a single-game school record for the most points in the modern era (since 1946), edging out UW's 69 points in a win over New Mexico State on Sept. 29, 1962. UW is one of just three teams in the country to score at least 70 points this season (Ohio State and Oregon are the others).
UW ranks among the top 20 in the country in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. The Badgers' D has given up just five touchdowns this season, tied for second-fewest in the Big Ten.
After four games, UW opponents are just 14-of-51 (27.5 percent) on third down (second-best in the Big Ten and 17th in the country). The Badgers have converted 25 of their 47 third-down opportunities (53.2 percent). That is 10th-best in the country. Wisconsin is one of seven teams in the country to rank among the top 20 in both third-down conversions and third-down defense.
Michigan State Notes
Under head coach Mark Dantonio, Michigan State is 12-2 in games it gains 200-plus yards rushing, including a perfect 4-0 in 2010. In addition, the Spartans are 20-7 under Dantonio when outrushing their opponent, including a perfect 4-0 this season.
Michigan State is 4-2 (.667) in Big Ten openers vs. Wisconsin, including a 2-0 mark in games played in Spartan Stadium. The Spartans open Big Ten play against the Badgers for the third time in the last four years.
Michigan State's receiving corps features two career 1,000-yard receivers: senior Mark Dell (92 for 1,520) and junior B.J. Cunningham (103 for 1,359). That duo has combined for 195 receptions, 2,879 yards and 12 career touchdowns.
Over the last three seasons (2007-09), Michigan State has lost 10 games by a combined total of 45 points, including two in overtime (Northwestern and Iowa in 2007). Those 10 games have been decided by seven points or less.
When presented with the facts, Watt didn't hesitate. He acknowledged that the Spartans have the best rushing offense the Badgers have faced thus far in the 2010 season and that they pride themselves on running the football up the gut behind their big offensive line.
Big yes, but Watt says Michigan State doesn't have a John Clay, a Gabe Carimi or a John Moffitt. Wisconsin obviously does, and the defensive line has been going against them day after day since the summer to prepare each other for games like this.
"We're getting the best look possible to prepare ourselves for game day," Watt said. "It's good against good and we're going to see who wins after play. Whoever has the best fundamentals at the end of the day is going to win this game."
Wisconsin's fundamentals have been sound. Through four games, UW is tied for second nationally with Penn State for fewest penalties per game at 2.8 (for 25 yards), being penalized 11 times for 100 yards overall. Michigan State, which was penalized 11 times for 121 yards last week, is 114th nationally at nine per game (for 90 yards). Advantage Wisconsin.
The magic number for Wisconsin, who is a two point favorite on Saturday, is 24. Since 1990, Michigan State is 107-32-1 (.768) when it scores at least 24 points and 18-83-1 (.181) when it scores fewer than 24 points. In the last four meetings, Michigan State is averaging 34.5 points (2-2). If Wisconsin is going to win this game, the defense is going to have to allow the Badgers' offense plenty of time on the field, wearing down MSU with its power running game and clock-control offense.
This is a pivotal crossroads for the 2010 season. Win, the Badgers stock gets a big spike upward. Lose, kiss a Big Ten title goodbye, hear doubt start to creep in and see the disappointment in the fan base. The Badgers have too much pride to let that happen.
Wisconsin 27, Michigan State 23
Straight up: 4-0
Against the Spread: 3-1