Preview: Green Growing Pains

When Michigan State makes its first trip to Camp Randall Stadium since 2009 Saturday, the Spartans will bring with them a defense worthy of a national championship team. The offense, however, has been the problem for a school still fighting to be bowl eligible.

MADISON - When he became the first member of Mark Dantonio's 2009 recruiting class, committing a year before he officially signed his national letter of intent, Detroit-native Chris Norman knew he was going to hear the naysayers.

So as coaches from Michigan, Oregon, Penn State, West Virginia and Wisconsin offered him scholarships and people surrounding him were telling him to look at different schools, Norman maintained that the Spartans fit the personality he was trying to project.

"In the past, Michigan State has been a football program that has always played with a chip on its shoulder," said Norman. "Whether it was disrespect by the national media or playing against Michigan, we always had a reason to go out and prove something."

After back-to-back 11-win seasons, Norman and Michigan State will have a lots to prove when they head to Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 2009 to play Wisconsin Saturday.

Like Wisconsin, Michigan State has had heavy transition on its offense at the offensive line, receiver and quarterback position. Unlike the Badgers, the growing pains are still clear. Through eight games, the Spartans (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) have scored over 17 points just three times and have lost games where their defense has held Iowa (19), Ohio State (17) and Michigan (12) under their season scoring average.

In its lone conference win, Michigan State needed to rally from 14 points down at the start of the third quarter to beat Indiana, a school that hasn't won a conference game since 2010. Now the Spartans are trying to rebound from losing to in-state rival Michigan for the first time since 2007 despite now allowing the Wolverines into the end zone.

"Going through the seasons, through the ups and downs, if we can rely on our family atmosphere and lean on that, it will make things a lot more enjoyable," said quarterback Andrew Maxwell. "It will set us up for a lot more success."

Replacing three-year starter Kirk Cousins, Maxwell has completed 55.2 percent of his passes for 1,799 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. After starting the conference season with consecutive games over 250 passing yards, at least one touchdown and no interceptions, Maxwell has been held under 200-yards passing with a touchdown-interception ratio of 1:2 in back-to-back losses to the Hawkeyes and Wolverines.

"A quarterback is kind of like a golfer and to be really effective and successful, you can't have these big roller-coaster emotions," said Maxwell. "You have to have that quiet resilience, which was what Kirk had. Kirk just kept plugging and more times than not, that's going to yield good things for you."

While the offense has been inconsistent, the Michigan State defense has been stellar. Led by a pair of defensive ends Wisconsin highly recruited (William Gholston and Marcus Rush) and one of the top linebackers in the conference in Max Bullough, Michigan State ranks first in the conference in scoring defense (15.3 ppg), total defense (277.1 ypg) and rushing defense (100.3 ypg) and is fourth in passing defense (176.9 ypg).

By comparison, Wisconsin is third, fourth or fifth in those same categories, running a similar style that comes from UW coach Bret Bielema's relationship with Dantonio.

When Dantonio was an assistant at Ohio State and Bielema was a defensive coordinator at Kansas State, the two shared ideas on defensive philosophies when their paths crossed on the recruiting trail. Even now, Bielema admits to watching Michigan State's defense to take ideas he can incorporate into Wisconsin's game planning.

"To have an opportunity to compete with him on a high level is really, really a neat thing for me," said Bielema, who also played for Spartans defensive line coach Ted Gill at Iowa in the early 1990s. "I think our players have so much respect for the Michigan State players and the way they compete. They compete at such a high level, but also the intensity they bring is second to none."

The intensity will certainly be there again, especially from the Michigan State sideline after what has transpired the last two seasons.

For two straight years, Michigan State has beaten Wisconsin in the conference season, yet found itself watching Wisconsin in the Bowl Championship Series and the Rose Bowl while they have played a bowl game in Florida.

Two years ago the Spartans had a gripe with the selection process, as Wisconsin won the three-way tiebreaker with Michigan State and Ohio State based on a higher BCS standing.

Last year, Michigan State beat Wisconsin on a Hail Mary pass in East Lansing with no time left and outgained Wisconsin 471-to-345 in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, but got bailed out by Jeff Duckworth's 36-yard catch on fourth-and-6 and a penalty for running into the kicker that allowed Wisconsin to run out the clock.

Now with Michigan State fitting just to get to six wins and be eligible for a bowl game, the intensity will need to noticeable once again.

"We were really disappointed with (the loss) because our defense could have played better," said Norman. "We could have done a lot of things better on offense, defense and special teams. That one sticks in my mind a lot because we were denied an opportunity.

"It really motivates me and it's going to really motivate our team to play Wisconsin with a lot more passion and a lot sharper of an edge."

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