Preview: Cleansing the Palette

Wisconsin football started off 3-0 in the non-conference slate last season and fell flat once the Big Ten season started. Now 3-0 again this season, Wisconsin hopes to wipe the slate clean and take out some pent-up frustration on the conference, starting with Michigan State on Saturday.

MADISON – Winning the first three games is nice, but consider the Wisconsin football program out on a revenge tour, where nothing less than perfection is going to be expected.

"To get better in the future, you've definitely got to learn from past history," senior Jaevery McFadden said. "This is why you come to a school like Wisconsin, to play in the Big Ten. We want some revenge, so we're looking forward to it."

That tour starts Saturday against one of the opponents Wisconsin had issues with a season ago, as the Badgers will face-off against Michigan State at 11 a.m. Saturday.

A season ago, the Badgers won their first three non-conference games and dropped their first four conference games for the first time since 1996. Wisconsin is also trying to erase the memory of what happened to them in East Lansing last season, a game that still has a sour taste in the mouths of the UW upperclassmen.

In that game, Wisconsin lead 24-13 with nine minutes, 19 seconds left, but costly penalties, including a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on head coach Bret Bielema, and a questionable holding call on John Moffitt that wiped out a 21-yard gain by John Clay, allowed the Spartans to score the final 12 points and steal a victory.

"If you don't learn from history, it will repeat itself," senior O'Brien Schofield said. "We took those lessons and applied them in the off season and made those corrections. Michigan State beat us last year, but we thought we let the game go."

Added Clay: "(Saturday is) our coming out party. It's the Big Ten opener and we're going to show everybody in this conference what we are made of and what we can do."

Clay remembers that game as a positive experience, rushing for 111 yards rushing and that touchdown. He remembers last week game as a nightmare. Clay fumbled three times (losing one) against Wofford and was benched in favor of Zach Brown, who also fumbled early in the first quarter.

Despite ranking fourth in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 199.3 yards per game, UW has had only one 100-yard rusher in three games and have yet to rush for over 200 yards as a team against a FBS opponent. While the running game has yet to really explode, the Wisconsin offense remains in balance.

"Our focus has been wins," running back coach John Settle said. "If we rush for 100 and pass for 200 or rush for 200 and pass for 100, it doesn't make any difference as long as we win the ball game. We want to have an offense that makes the defense defend the whole field."

"We can be better and that's our focus every week. The big numbers will come, as long as they talk what we are telling them and applying them."

Although the focus on winning has provided dividends for Wisconsin, the Spartans have let a 3-0 start slip through their fingers.

Opening the season with a 44-3 win over Montana State, the Spartans lost to Central Michigan, 29-27, on a game-winning 42-yard field goal that came with three seconds left, which happened after an offside penalty against Michigan State on the previous play on a 47-yard attempt that missed.

Last week against Notre Dame, sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins (who leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency and has completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 649 yards and five touchdowns) threw a costly interception under pressure on second and 10 on the Irish 18 that cost the Spartans the victory.

"We're a couple plays away from being 3-0," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. "(Last week), we fell behind 13-3 and we fought back. We found out a little bit about our character on the football field in terms of how we are going to respond in a tough environment to play under pressure when we had lost the week before."

Despite having to replace All-America running back Javon Ringer and two-year starting quarterback Brian Hoyer, the Spartans were picked third in the preseason media poll, based on their 9-4 overall record last season, but have had to fill plenty of gaps in their offense.

Having to replace three starters from last season's offensive line and Ringer hasn't been easy for Michigan State, which averaged only 127 yards per game on the ground, but boast a trio of talented wide receivers in senior Blair White, sophomore B.J. Cunningham and junior Mark Dell.

Many Badger fans will remember White, who is second in the Big Ten in receptions (22) and receiving yards (342) and leads the league with four touchdown receptions, as the former walk-on had seven receptions for 164 yards last season against UW.

"He's going to compete and play with a chip on his shoulder wherever he goes," senior safety Chris Maragos said. "He's going to play tough, and he's a great route runner. On defense, we need to take the approach that we've taken all season – grit up, bow up and get tough."

Other than junior linebacker Greg Jones, the preseason defensive player of the year in the Big Ten who leads the Spartans with 38 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, the Spartans defense, a group that returns eight starters, has allowed 62 points and 855 yards the past two weeks.

"We need to continue to stress playing the ball in the deep part of the field and play with a great deal of attention to detail," said Dantonio, as MSU's defense has seen opponents average 251.3 passing yards and throw for six touchdowns. "When we've had a problem, it's been a couple deep balls on us. Obviously, you don't like to see that … so you have to continue to work through those things."

A season ago, the Badgers weren't able to finish football games, especially in the Big Ten. Wisconsin barely outscored its Big Ten opponents in the fourth quarter (68-66) and lost three conference games by a combined six points, all games they led in the fourth quarter.

A year later, the Badgers have won two games by 11 points and expect another close contest with the Spartans, as the last two games in the series have been decided by four points.

"They haven't been able to finish, but they have a very talented offense that runs very hard," Schofield said. "It's going to come down to our defense and if we can read our keys and set the tone of power football. It's important for us to go out and play fourth quarters and when we do that, good things happen. I feel like we are a tough match for every opponent."

Michigan State (1-2, 0-0 Big Ten) vs. Wisconsin (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, September 26 at 11:00 a.m. CT

Arena – Camp Randall Stadium (capacity: 80,321 / FieldTurf)

Television - ESPN (Dave Pasch, Bob Griese and Chris Spielman)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)

Series – Michigan State leads 27-20 (13-12 in Madison)

Last Meeting - Michigan State won, 25-24, on Nov. 1, 2008 in East Lansing

UW Notes:

Wisconsin has opened the season 3-0 for the sixth consecutive season. In the previous five years, they have averaged 9.4 wins.

On the season, Wisconsin has scored on all 12 of its red zone possessions (10 TDs, 2 FGs). They are one of just six teams in the country (and the only Big Ten team) to be perfect on at least 12 red zone attempts this season. Wofford did not complete its fi rst pass until the third quarter. The Terriers had just 45 passing yards, the fewest for a UW opponent since limiting Western Kentucky to just 28 yards on Sept. 29, 2002 in a 24-6 win. Wisconsin also limited Wofford to just three completions on seven attempts, the lowest total for a UW opponent since the Hilltoppers finished the game 1-for-4 passing.

Wisconsin has amassed its most passing yards in first three games of a season (678) since throwing for 735 in first three games of 2003.

Michigan State Notes:

Michigan State defensive line coach Ted Gill served as (Wisconsin head coach) Bret Bielema's position coach at Iowa from 1990-92. Bielema spent the 1994 season as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, working for Coach Gill.

Michigan State is 4-1 (.800) in Big Ten openers vs. Wisconsin, including a 2-1 mark in games played in Camp Randall Stadium. The Spartans open Big Ten play against the Badgers for the first time since 2007.

The Spartans lead the Big Ten and rank 14th in the NCAA in passing offense, averaging 295.7 yards per game. Michigan State threw for 354 yards against Notre Dame – its highest single-game total since Jeff Smoker passed for 357 yards in a 41-20 victory over Penn State in the 2003 regular-season finale.

Junior linebacker Greg Jones leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth in the NCAA in tackles, averaging 12.7 stops per game. Jones also is listed among the Big Ten leaders in tackles for loss (tied for fifth at 1.5 per game). He leads the team in tackles (38 total), tackles for loss (4.5 for 19 yards) and production points (51).

Prediction

There's a big reason why Wisconsin is 3-0 to start the 2009 season and the reason is turnovers.

The Badgers are tied for the Big Ten lead and tied for 14th in the country with eight turnovers gained this season (four fumbles, four interceptions). While the Badgers could afford to be somewhat sloppy against Northern Illinois and Wofford, Wisconsin needed to be clean against Fresno State. The result – plus-three in the turnover department and a 34-31 double overtime win. For the season, UW's plus-0.67 turnover margin is tied for third in the conference. They'll need those numbers on their side if they want to beat the Spartans.

This is clearly not the same Michigan State team Wisconsin saw the last two seasons with Javon Ringer running all over the place. The Spartans are a passing team and this is redemption week for the Wisconsin secondary. After getting killed against the Bulldogs, Wofford attempted only seven passes last week, making it tough to say the Badgers made up for their shortcomings.

With UW being only a three-point favorite, other people believe that Wisconsin has yet to show its true strength, especially since UW is one of only two BCS undefeated schools to not get any votes in the AP poll. I think they'll get some votes this week, as a solid, balanced offense will lead UW to a 1-0 start in the Big Ten.

Wisconsin 31, Michigan State 24

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 3-0

Against the Spread: 3-0


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