MADISON – The amount of different combinations Michigan State has done through two games with its offensive line is enough to make a player’s head spin. Defensive end Conor Sheehy doesn’t recall another team mixing and matching as the Spartans, especially when it doesn’t alter the fact that the group knows how to play.
“These guys are really solid players, so it’s definitely going to be a technique game,” Sheehy said. “They are a good solid football team that plays with good technique. They do a good job of playing together.”
Sheehy and Wisconsin’s defensive line are expecting a variety of looks from No.8 Michigan State’s front when the two teams open Big Ten conference play Saturday at Spartans Stadium (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).
In Saturday’s 36-28 win at No.18 Notre Dame, Michigan State started with David Beedle (left tackle), Brian Allen (left guard), Kodi Kieler (center), Brandon Clemons (right guard) and Miguel Machado (right tackle), but the Spartans didn’t stick with it.
Throughout the game, McGowan played left guard with Allen going to center and Kieler moving to right guard, right tackle and even left guard. Michigan State also played Tyler Higby at guard.
No matter their arrangement, the group paved the way for 501 total yards, including 260 rushing yards.
"(Offensive Line Coach Mark) Staten has done a great job of bouncing guys around, because I think that is the reality of football,” Michigan State quarterback coach Brad Salem. “You're not going to live with the same five the whole season and we have been able to build depth and experience.”
Other than Allen, who has played in 28 games (15 starts) over his three years, the group is pretty lean on experience. Kieler started at right tackle the previous two season, Clemons – a sixth-year senior – has started three games and Beedle Machado made his first career start in the opener
Michigan State’s projecting starting depth chart for the Big Ten opener is the same as last week, although senior Benny McGowan is listed as a co-starter at right guard.
From an individual standpoint, Sheehy said he pays attention “to a certain extent” who is lined up ahead of him, allowing him to potential take advantage of weaknesses he’s seen on film study. In the end, it comes down to solid technique.
“We’ve done a great job of playing with solid technique this year,” Sheehy said, “and it’s starting to show it with us getting after it.”
Through three games, UW is 13th in the country against the run (82.3 yards per game) and 14th in total defense (261.0 ypg), the latter number putting them first in the conference.
Ogunbowale in a Funk
With Corey Clement out for most of the 2015 season, Dare Ogunbowale – with only a year of experience at tailback – filled in to rush for 819 yards and seven touchdowns on 194 carries, averaging a respectable 4.2 yards per carry behind an offensive line in flux. Even with Clement have missed three of the six halves of football, Ogunbowale hasn’t looked the same.
Heading into conference play, Ogunbowale has rushed for 127 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries, currently a career-low 3.8 yards per carry. Against Georgia State, which had the worst rush defense in the country threw two games, Ogunbowale managed only 3.3 yards per carry.
He’s also seen his receptions decrease, catching a total of three passes this season after averaging 2.7 catches per game a year ago.
According to running back coach John Settle, it’s been an adjustment not being the lead back.
“His role has changed somewhat, in the first couple weeks especially with him,” Settle said. “He’s been the third guy. We’ve tried to rely more on Corey and Taiwan (Deal) than use him. He was in position where he didn’t have to take a lot of punishment and stay fairly healthy going into Big Ten play.”
With no updates yet on the health of Clement and Deal, Settle said Ogunbowale – the only healthy back – could have a big workload against the Spartans.
“His role could change this week,” Settle said. “That’s my message to him, how quickly things can turn around. He approaches every week the right way, makes sure he knows the whole game plan. Not just the passing game, he knows the first and second, normal down and distance packages. He’s a good ball player. I like him because he wants to be on the field.”
A Need to be Special
As we wrote about Tuesday, special teams has been a big factor in determining who comes out the winner in the recent history between Michigan State and Wisconsin.
“Everybody is playing solid and play hard (on special teams),” said Sheehy, who blocked a field goal attempt in last week’s 23-17 win over Georgia State. “Just like any game, we treat field goals like another defensive play because points are on the line. We have to make sure we attack every play because that could be the difference.”
While Rafael Gaglianone (7-for-8) and P.J. Rosowski (13 touchbacks on 19 attempts) have delivered in the kicking game, the Badgers are hit and miss in other areas.
In a small sample size, Wisconsin’s ranks 55th in kickoff returns (22.3 yards per return), 70th in punt returns (6.8) and 122nd in net punting (31.6 yards), the last number being the most misleading because UW has put four of his eight punts on the season inside the 20.
Sophomore P.J. Rosowski handled the punts against LSU and true freshman Anthony Lotti the last two games, averaging 36.8 yards on his four kicks and having only two returned. Whoever punts Saturday will likely be punting to senior R.J. Shelton, a Beaver Dam native who has two returns for 19 yards in split time through two games.
Wisconsin offered Shelton a scholarship in February 2012, but the Badgers saw him more as an athlete than a tailback. He committed to Michigan State by the end of that month because the Spartans were going to start him at tailback. He had moved to receiver by fall 2013 and has 70 receptions over four years.
With Natrell Jamerson out at least three more weeks and Clement questionable, Wisconsin listed true freshman A.J. Taylor as its No.1 kickoff returner. Junior George Rushing and Clement are listed as the co-backups.
Extra Points: Settle said Bradrick Shaw already learned “a valuable lesson” with his fumble on Saturday, saying he was thinking too far ahead on the play and didn’t take the handoff from quarterback Bart Houston properly. He added those reps were valuable for Shaw to help prepare him for Big Ten play … Jim Leonhard said cornerback Lubern Figaro handled the nickel corner role and will continue to stay in that role, saying he “had a solid game,” played “fast” and was “fun to watch him play” … Corey Clement appeared to practice in some capacity Wednesday