The Badgers will need to bring both their offense and defense if the cardinal and white want to move to 5-0 when they take on Michigan State, one of the biggest surprises thus far in the Big Ten this season, this Saturday at Camp Randall.
A year after Michigan State ousted fiery coach John L. Smith, MSU hired Cincinnati head coach Mark Dantonio to turn the ship around and, so far, the move has paid off. The Spartans are off to their first 4-0 start since 2005 after a dominant 31-14 road victory over Notre Dame last weekend. Originally a defensive coach, Dantonio's discipline style and power offense has got all of East Lansing, along with the rest of the conference, talking.
"I was very excited for Mark to get a job," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "I just wasn't excited that it was in the Big Ten because he's an extreme disciplinarian. [Michigan State has] got good athletes and you can see he's got them believing in what they're saying."
One of the first things Dantonio did upon arriving was scrap Smith's spread offense and when with a conventional Power I - utilizing fullbacks, two tight ends or multiple wide receivers.
The power of that offense this season has been tailbacks Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick. Ringer is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 99.8 yards per game while Caulcrick is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 75.0 yards per game, including being second in the league with six touchdowns. The Badgers probably are still having nightmares about Caulcrick, who had 146 yards and a touchdown to ruin then-No.4 Wisconsin's 9-0 season in 2004.
"[They] have two [running backs] back there that can churn yardage," Bielema said. "They both are gifted athletically and know their roles and their schemes, and that presents a challenge for you defensively."
The Spartans aren't all about the run, as junior quarterback Brian Hoyer has put up numbers comparable to those of Wisconsin's Tyler Donovan. Both first-year starters, Hoyer has completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns, while Donovan has completed 60.1 percent for 761 yards and seven touchdowns.
Most of Hoyer's passes wind up in the hands of either junior wide receiver Devin Thomas (92.5 yards per game) or senior tight end Kellen Davis (15.3 yards per catch). Throw all those stats together and the Spartans rank sixth in the Big Ten in scoring (32.8 points per game), seventh in rushing (200.8 yards per game) and fifth in total offense (416.5 ypg). When comparing numbers, Michigan State ranks better than Wisconsin in every offense category except rushing yards.
"Offensively they do have talent at all positions," Bielema said. "Michigan State always has athletes, and now what they have is they have a group of athletes that are playing together as one."
After accumulating 113 yards against arguably the toughest front seven in the conference last week, all eyes will be on sophomore P.J. Hill and if he can continue his remarkable run against a Spartan defense that has had trouble stopping opposing running backs.
In the last two games, the Spartan defense gave up 172 yards to Pittsburgh's LeSean McCroy and 104 yards to Notre Dame's James Aldridge. Up until last week, Notre Dame's highest rushing output by one player was just 51 yards. Still allowing just 95.8 yards on the ground, the Spartan run defense will be going up against its toughest challenge yet.
"We need to hit [Hill] before he starts rolling, because once he starts rolling he's a beast and it's hard to stop him," linebacker SirDarean Adams told GoSpartans.net. "They are one of the real definitions of a Big Ten team. They are tough, aggressive and they play physical."
While Wisconsin and Michigan State aren't heated rivals, there is painful history between the two schools. Michigan State routed then-No.4 Wisconsin 49-14 in East Lansing in the teams' last meeting on Nov. 13, 2004. The loss started a downward spiral for Wisconsin, as UW lost its last three games of the season, losing chances to win the Big Ten title and a birth in the Rose Bowl.
The last time the Spartans visited Camp Randall was to witness first-hand the Lee Evans show, as the fifth-year wide receiver caught 10 passes for a school-record 258 yards and five scores in a 56-21 victory on Nov. 15, 2003.
"All I worry about is Michigan State," Bielema said. "As we enter conference play a week ago, we all know and understand every week, everybody has a chance to move up or down in the conference standings. Fortunately, we took a step in the right direction and hopefully continue to do that this week."
No. 23 Michigan State (4-0) vs. No.9 Wisconsin (5-0)
Date/Time - Saturday, Sept. 29 at 2:30 p.m. CDT
Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium (FieldTurf / 80,321)
Television - ABC (Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire, Bonnie Bernstein)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – Michigan State leads 26-19
Last Meeting - Michigan State won, 49-14, on Nov. 13, 2004 in East Lansing
The Spartans lead the all-time series 13-11 in Madison, but UW has won three of the last four at Camp Randall.
This will be just the second time in series history that both teams are ranked at the time of the game. The only other time was on Oct. 23, 1999 in Madison when No.16 UW defeated No.11 MSU 40-14.
Wisconsin owns the nation's longest winning streak at 13 games.
Wisconsin's eight-game winning streak in Big Ten games is a school record.
The Badgers have won 21 of their last 22 games at Camp Randall Stadium, including 10 straight.
A Badger win this Saturday would allow Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema to join Michigan legend Fielding Yost as the only two coaches in Big Ten history to guide their teams to wins in 17 of their first 18 games.
The winning team has scored at least 40 points in each of the last four meetings. The way these two offenses have been going as of late, 40 points is easily obtainable for both teams. However, Wisconsin's defense proved that they can shut down opponents that run a traditional Power-I type offense after halting the Hawkeyes last week with various blitz packages and different looks. Since MSU quarterback Brian Hoyer is less mobile than Iowa's Christensen and is making his first conference start, look for the blitzing to continue and the Badger offense, on the shoulders of P.J. Hill, to have a much better game offensively.
Wisconsin wins 27-13