Much to the dismay of fans wanting a clean, dominant performance in the nonconference finale, Wisconsin escaped last week with a 23-17 victory over lowly Georgia State, dropping the Badgers two spots to No.11 in the AP Poll. Up next for Wisconsin is a road trip to No.8 Michigan State for the school’s first meeting since 2012.
The Spartans are 2-0 this season after opening the season with a win over Football Championship Subdivision opponent Furman and an impressive victory over No.18 Notre Dame following MSU’s bye week. The Spartans do not hold a roster with too much talent that just jumps out, but Michigan State is well coached and has become one of college football’s elite programs.
There is no question that Saturday’s game will be a tough matchup for the Badgers. Here is a closer look.
Michigan State’s offense is led by senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor, who is in his first full season as the starter. In his two games this season, O’Connor has thrown for 431 yards while completing 32 of his 44 attempted passes, amounting to a 72.7 percent completion rate. With only two interceptions this season, including one off a deflection last week, O’Connor boasts a 183.4 quarterback efficiency rating, ranking him sixth in the country.
At the receiving end of O’Connor’s passes, the Spartans have a plethora of reliable receivers who are proving to be trusted targets, including Monty Madaris, freshman phenom Donnie Corley, Felton Davis III and tight ends Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles. Corley, a former four-star recruit on Scout, has a leaping 38-yard touchdown catch against the Irish and has the potential to breakout any given weekend. Madaris and Corley lead their team in receiving yards with 125 and 105 yards, respectively. R.J. Shelton – a Beaver Dam native – had eight catches for 80 yards in the Notre Dame win.
The Spartans balance on their passing attack with a talented running back group who could make an argument for being the best in the Big Ten East. The majority of the carries have gone to blossoming star sophomore L.J. Scott. Compared by many to former Spartans running back Le’Veon Bell, impressing the college football world in his freshman season, while being poised to have another solid year. Junior tailback Gerald Holmes along with Madre London and senior running back-receiver hybrid R.J. Shelton also pose threats on offense. Scott and Homes account for all of the teams four rushing scores this year.
In the win over Notre Dame, the Spartans rushed 52 times for 260 yards (5.0-yard average) and three touchdowns. Holmes – a 222-pound back with speed and power – finished with 100 yards and two scores on 13 carries (including a 73-yard TD run), while Scott had 98 yards on 22 carries. O’Connor is also a threat to run via scrambles or designed runs.
As we wrote Wednesday, Michigan State’s offensive line is replacing three starters and members of the group have lined up in multiple formations. It worked Saturday, rolling up over 500 yards against the Irish.
In what has become the norm under head coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans’ defense is an extremely talented and experienced group, as 10 of the 11 projected starters are juniors or seniors. When talking about the Michigan State defense, the first name mentioned is usually nose tackle Malik McDowell, one of college football’s best overall players. The rest of the defensive line is made up of either seniors or redshirt juniors. Like Wisconsin, the Spartans’ line tries to stymie the blockers to open up lanes for their talented linebackers to make play.
The linebacker corps is led by redshirt senior linebacker Riley Bullough, an athletic and ferocious player, who I would describe as an “always near the ball” type athlete. Really, that description can be applied to the whole defensive group. Bullough, junior Jon Reschke and sophomore Andrew Dowell combined for 16 tackles against Notre Dame, and Reschke forced two of Notre Dame’s three turnovers (one forced fumble, one interception).
Michigan State’s projected starting defensive back group mostly consists of upperclassmen and are backed up by several talented sophomores that should see time as well. Sound familiar? The group allowed 216 of the 344 passing yards to the Irish in the second half, so the group is still working on its consistency. In reality, Michigan State and Wisconsin are almost clones of each other defensively.
Despite winning two conference titles and 36 games the previous three years, Michigan State is an underrated squad that always seems to have an immense chip on its shoulder. The Badgers could argue they feel the same way, having been counted out of several games before the season even began. Two programs that mirror themselves after each other, this has the makings of a hard-fought, true Big Ten style football game that could go either way.