A four year hiatus in the series hasn’t clouded the fact that Wisconsin and Michigan State have played some entertaining football game. Over the last five meetings between the two schools, only one game has been decided by double digits and the last two games have been decided by three points. If No.11 Wisconsin wants to win over No.8 Michigan State in East Lansing for the first time since 2002, the Badgers will have to look more like they did in week two against Akron and less like they did last week against Georgia State.
Here are BadgerNations five keys to a Wisconsin victory on Saturday
1, RUNNING BACK HEALTH
Wisconsin was going to need to be at full strength at the running back position entering Big Ten play but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Corey Clement (left leg) and Taiwan Deal (right leg) are listed as questionable and Bradrick Shaw (right shoulder) is listed as out for Saturday. Head coach Paul Chryst sounds like he’s expecting Clement to play, as the senior has done more work this week than last after suffering an ankle injury Sept.10. With Clement, the most consistent runner on the roster, the Badgers’ run game should be able to pick up the tough yards against a stout State front to keep the chains moving. Clement is able to recognize the open hole and strong/talented enough to take advantage. If Clement doesn’t play, the Badgers could be in trouble.
2, HORNIBROOK COMES TO PLAY
Over the last two games Alex Hornibrook has shown poise and a good command, as he was able to spark a stagnant Wisconsin offense into 17 second-half points in last week’s win over Georgia State. Those two games were at home, so it is difficult to know how he’ll respond in his first road start in a raucous environment. Hornibrook will need to be able to adjust quickly to a Michigan State defense that is extremely talented in the front seven but susceptible in the secondary. UW’s offense will almost certainly encounter some resistance, so Hornibrook’s ability to shake off a bad series and move forward will be vital. Most importantly, Hornibrook will need to convert in the red zone and on third down, two areas that have been spotty for the Badgers through three games.
3, WINNING THE BATTLE IN THE TRENCHES
Through the nonconference portion of the schedule, Wisconsin has been highly successful controlling the clock and time of possession, ranking third in the country at 38 minutes, 26 seconds per game. The Spartans’ offense certainly has the capability to do the same, so Wisconsin’s offensive line winning the battle in the trenches is critical to keeping the Spartans off the field. The health of left guard is something to watch for UW, as Micah Kapoi is questionable with a left foot injury and Jon Dietzen is out. After the line struggled to create holes against Georgia State, the Badgers have to get things patched up to prevent Malik McDowell and the rest of Michigan State’s defensive from consistently stuffing Wisconsin’s runners.
4, BOUNCE BACK FOR WISCONSIN’S SECONDARY
Michigan State will test Wisconsin’s secondary to see if the Badgers corrected the mistakes that plagued them in the second half last week, struggling to cover quick slants and tackling. If Wisconsin can create third-and-long situations, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Spartans try a quick slant to pick up the first down. If Wisconsin doesn’t improve their coverage and ability to tackle, the Spartans will control the clock. Wisconsin will need to be aware of where Beaver Dam native R.J. Shelton is on the field (team-high eight receptions) along with Monty Madaris and Donnie Corley (each registered over 100 yards receiving). Being able to prevent the big play in the passing game will be important, as Corley had catches of 28 and 38 yards in the win at Notre Dame.
5, RUN DEFENSE
With it expected to be a physical game, Wisconsin’s defensive line - like the offensive line - can expect a challenge as the Spartans consistently rotate offensive linemen in the game. It will be a team effort to slow the Spartans’ rushing attack and the defensive line will need to create the necessary holes for the linebackers to stuff tailback L.J. Scott and the running game. If defenders can stick to their gap responsibilities, it will prevent the Spartans from simply running the football down the throat of Wisconsin’s defense.
If Wisconsin wants to leave East Lansing victorious, they will need Hornibrook to play beyond his years. He certainly is capable of leading Wisconsin to a victory; he’s shown to get into a rhythm quickly despite coming off the bench over the last two weeks. Wisconsin’s defense should be able to keep them in the game but it will also be important for the defense to create a turnover to potentially help the offense have a short field to work with.
The health on the offensive side of the ball is concerning, especially considering UW might have only two healthy tailbacks available to them. Even if Clement plays, will he be able to hold up in what’s expected to be a physical game? If Wisconsin can’t control the clock and limit MSU’s offensive possession, it could cause Wisconsin to play from behind, something the Badgers can’t afford. Michigan State beats Wisconsin, 23-17.