Wisconsin-Michigan State Preview

The Badgers and Spartans kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday at Camp Randall

Buckeyes offense v

Spartan offense v. Badger defense

Michigan State projected startersWisconsin projected starters
QB Jeff Smoker (Sr. 6-3, 224) DE Darius Jones (Jr. 6-3, 268)
WR Matt Trannon (So. 6-6, 228) DT Anttaj Hawthorne (Jr. 6-3, 300)
WR Agim Shabaj (So. 5-10, 194)DT Jason Jefferson (Jr. 6-3, 307)
WR Aaron Alexander (So. 6-5, 205) DE Jonathan Welsh (Jr. 6-4, 228)
RB Jaren Hayes (So. 5-9, 184) LB LaMarr Watkins (So. 6-1, 216)
LT Gordon Niebylski (So. 6-4, 308) LB Jeff Mack (Sr. 6-0, 244)
LG Joe Tate (Sr. 6-5, 295) LB Alex Lewis (Sr. 6-1, 237)
C Chris Morris (So. 6-4, 291) CB Scott Starks (Jr. 5-10, 168)
RG Paul Harker (Sr. 6-3, 302) SS Ryan Aiello (Sr. 6-1, 196)
RT Steve Stewart (Sr. 6-5, 312) FS Jim Leonhard (Jr. 5-8, 183)
TE Eric Knott (Jr. 6-3, 267) CB Chuckie Cowans (Jr. 5-8, 169)

Key reserves

Michigan State: WR Kyle Brown (So. 6-1, 205), RB Jason Teague (So. 5-9, 195), RB Tyrell Dortch (Jr. 5-10, 203), RB DeAndra Cobb (Jr. 5-10, 186), TE Jason Randall (Jr. 6-5, 255), QB Drew Stanton (Fr. 6-3, 222), WR Ziehl Kavanaght (Sr. 5-11, 180), WR Jerramy Scott (So. 5-10, 185).

Wisconsin: CB Levonne Rowan (So. 6-1, 178), LB Kareem Timbers (Jr. 6-3, 209), DT/DE Nick Cochart (Sr. 6-1, 267), DT Kalvin Barrett (Jr. 6-2, 316), WR/CB Brandon Williams (So. 5-11, 170), LB Chris Catalano (Jr. 6-1, 206), LB Elliot Goode (So. 6-2, 240), LB Kyle McCorison (Sr. 6-0, 242).

When the Spartans have the ball…

Despite the team's current two-game slide, the best story in the Big Ten this season has been the resurgence of a moribund Michigan State program that last season looked to be on a downward spiral. Credit coach John L. Smith and his staff for getting a talented group to come together and play as a team. The Spartans' other savior, of course, has been quarterback Jeff Smoker, who fought back from a substance abuse problem and has put together an incredible season, leading the Big Ten with 2,675 yards.

With Smoker leading the way, Michigan State has the best passing offense in the Big Ten, but has struggled immensely on the ground, averaging a league-worst 103.4 rushing yards per game and a miserly 3.4 yards per carry. The team has tried to run the football, handing off more than it threw in three games this season. In losses to Michigan and Ohio State, though, the Spartans practically ran backwards, with 41 yards on 33 carries. As a result the team turned almost entirely to the passing game. Smoker completed 21 of 40 passes for 254 yards, one touchdown and one interception versus the Wolverines; 35 for 55 for 351 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Buckeyes. The three interceptions were Smoker's first in Big Ten play this season.

It is no secret that Wisconsin has struggled against well-developed passing games in recent seasons. Purdue came into Camp Randall earlier this season with a very good running game to match their passing game and proceeded to throw the ball all over the field. Michigan State has tried to be balanced, but it has not worked. Against the Badgers Saturday, expect the Spartans to open it up, which does not bode well for Wisconsin. The Badgers secondary and linebackers have not fared well when under high-octane duress this season. In addition, Michigan State does not afford teams the luxury of honing in on a few receivers. Rather, nine different players have at least 100 yards receiving; a half-dozen have at least 20 catches.

The key for Wisconsin is to put pressure on Smoker. If he has time to set up he will pick the Badgers apart. The matchup to watch is Michigan State left tackle Gordon Niebylski, who is replacing injured starter Stefon Wheeler, against Wisconsin's defensive ends. Assuming Jonathan Welsh plays Saturday, he would most often line up across from Niebylski. Then there is the intriguing prospect of Alex Lewis playing some rush end, as he has sporadically this season.

Badger offense v. Spartan defense

Wisconsin projected startersMichigan State projected starters
QB Jim Sorgi (Sr. 6-5, 190) DE Greg Taplin (Sr. 6-5, 259)
TB Dwayne Smith (So. 5-11, 225)DT Matthias Askew (Jr. 6-6, 299)
FB Matt Bernstein (So. 6-2, 273) DT Kyle Rasmussen (Sr. 6-4, 290)
WR Lee Evans (Sr. 5-11, 202) DE Clifford Dukes (Jr. 6-3, 264)
WR B. Williams (So. 5-11, 170) LB Ronald Stanley (Jr. 6-0, 234)
LT Morgan Davis (Jr. 6-5, 326) LB Mike Labinjo (Sr. 6-1, 252)
LG Dan Buenning (Jr. 6-4, 298) LB Monquiz Wedlow (Sr. 5-11, 203)
C Donovan Raiola (So. 6-3, 290) CB Darren Barnett (So. 6-0, 187)
RG J. Clinkscale (Jr. 6-3, 308) S Eric Smith (So. 6-1, 205)
RT Mike Lorenz (So. 6-5, 313) FS Jason Harmon (Jr. 5-11, 195)
TE Tony Paciotti (Jr. 6-4, 263) CB Roderick Maples (Jr. 5-10, 190)

Key reserves

Wisconsin: TB Booker Stanley (Fr. 5-10, 207), TB Anthony Davis (Jr. 5-8, 191) WR/TE Owen Daniels (So. 6-3, 213), WR Jonathan Orr (So. 6-3, 190), WR Darrin Charles (Jr. 6-6, 210), TE Jason Pociask (So. 6-3, 250), WR Ernest Mason (Fr. 5-11, 180), WR Brandon White (So. 6-3, 182), OT/TE Joe Thomas (Fr. 6-8, 280), QB Matt Schabert (Jr. 6-2, 203).

Michigan State: LB Seth Mitchell (So. 6-2, 249), S Darren Ware (So. 6-3, 223), LB Mark Goebel (Sr. 6-2, 228), DT Greg Yeaster (Jr. 6-1, 269), FS Greg Cooper (Fr. 5-11, 183), DT Kevin Vickerson (Jr. 6-5, 298), DE Clifton Ryan (Fr. 6-2, 279).

When the Badgers have the ball…

As good a story as Jeff Smoker has been this season, the Spartans defensive turnaround has been perhaps even more important to their success. Last season, Michigan State's defense was nothing short of atrocious, allowing 33.2 points and 402.7 yards (including 213.8 on the ground) per game. This year, while far from dominant, the Spartans have certainly given opponents headaches, allowing 368.2 yards and 21 points per game.

It all starts up front, where the Spartans lead the Big Ten with 38 sacks. The Badgers have yielded the second most (28) in the conference. Wisconsin's line will have to pick up its play or spend a lot of time Saturday picking quarterback Jim Sorgi off the turf. Michigan State's best pass rushers are ends Greg Taplin (seven sacks) and Clifford Dukes (six), tackle Matthias Askew (six) and linebacker Matt Labinjo (five).

If Sorgi has time, however, Wisconsin should enjoy ample success. Michigan State's secondary, while improved, is no match for Badger receivers Lee Evans and Brandon Williams.

Oddly, it is the Badgers running game that is a question mark. The never ending question continues to be whether or not Anthony Davis plays and, if he does play, how long will his ankle hold up? Booker Stanley and Dwayne Smith thrived earlier this season but the running game has struggled immensely the past two weeks. If Wisconsin cannot establish the run and keep Michigan State's pass rush from teeing off, the Badgers will be looking at consecutive loss number four.

Special Teams matchup

Wisconsin specialistsMichigan State specialists
P R.J. Morse (Jr. 6-1, 246) Brandon Fields (Fr. 6-5, 219)
PK Mike Allen (Jr. 6-2, 186)Dave Rayner (Jr. 6-2, 203)
KO Scott Campbell (Sr. 6-0, 245)Rayner
KR B. Williams (So. 5-11, 170) DeAndra Cobb (Jr. 5-10, 186)
PR Jim Leonhard (Jr. 5-8, 183)Ziehl Kavanaght (Sr. 5-11, 180)
LS Matt Katula (Jr. 6-6, 282) Andrew Petterson (Jr. 6-0, 200)
H Matt Schabert (Jr. 6-2, 203) Fields

Wisconsin's kick coverage team will have to play its best game or else DeAndra Cobb will star. Cobb has returned three kicks for touchdowns this season. While the unit has played well lately, the Badgers' kick coverage team was a sore spot early this season.

Wisconsin's return game has been strong as well, but will face a stiff challenge from the Spartans, who likely have the best coverage units in the Big Ten.

The Spartans possess a definitive edge in the kicking game. Brandon Fields is averaging an incredible 46.2 yards per punt and kicker Dave Rayner has made 21-of-26 field goals, including 5-of-6 between 40 and 49 yards and 4-of-7 from 50 yards out or further.

BadgerNation.com forecast

Wisconsin looks poised to continue its downward slide. Michigan State's passing game is too good, and its pass rush too fierce for the Badgers to walk away with a win. If the Badgers are to get back on the winning track, though, starting fast will be crucial. During the three-game losing streak the team has struggled early and has had to dig itself out of a hole without success.

Prediction: Michigan State 30, Wisconsin 23

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