Grading the Badgers – Michigan State

Led by another solid performance from Scott Tolzien, a breakout performance for the Wisconsin secondary and a comeback performance by John Clay, the Badgers take care of Michigan State, 38-30, in the conference opener. Badger Nation's publisher Benjamin Worgull grades the Badgers position by position.

Quarterbacks

Scott Tolzien isn't a secret anymore. After tearing it up against three non-conference foes, Tolzien made the Spartans' battered secondary look foolish, completing 19-of-31 passes, throwing for 243 yards and registering four touchdowns.

Tolzien joined Darrell Bevell, Jim Sorgi, Neil Graff, Randy Wright, Mike Howard and John Stocco as UW quarterbacks who have thrown at least four touchdown passes in a game.

He was stellar throwing the football all game and was accurate in his throws. His first touchdown pass, a 15-yard strike to Garrett Graham late in the first quarter, was thrown perfectly over the linebacker where only Graham could catch.

His best throw of the day came in arguably the biggest pressure cooker of the day. After UW saw its led cut to seven, Tolzien promptly hit Isaac Anderson for a big 45-yard completion. Three plays later, Tolzien connected with Toon on a touchdown with yet another perfect pass.

Forget that two-quarterback system. Tolzien is the man under center for the Badgers, especially he's completed at least 60 percent of his passes in all four starts and has committed zero turnovers for the third straight game.

Grade: A+

Running Backs

One week after literally fumbling away his starting job, sophomore John Clay proved why last weekend was simply a bad day at the office.

After getting his first career 100-yard gain against the Spartans last season, Clay battered Michigan State one more time, achieving career highs in caries (32) and yards (142), all the while scoring a one-yard touchdown and didn't put the ball on the ground once.

"I'm more than willing to be the workhorse," Clay said. "I'm big. I can take a pounding. All of I've got to do is follow my offensive line and they'll lead me."

The roles were reversed this week. After Zach Brown dropped a toss play in the third quarter, Brown was benched and Clay was asked to carry the load. He responded was a bang. Of UW's 42 second-half snaps, Clay got 25 of them, racking up 105 yards.

He averaged 4.4 yards per carry, gained at least five yards on 11 carries and picked up three first downs in third-down scenarios, all from the backup role.

"If it's because he doesn't have to start, then he can come off the bench," Bielema joked. "He can go in the second play as far as I'm concerned."

It wasn't all Clay that made an impact on the running game. On UW's first scoring drive, Tolzien ran the naked bootleg and went untouched for 14 yards. A few plays later, Isaac Anderson ran the end around for 14 more yards, getting the Badgers down to the nine.

UW rushed for 193 yards on the ground, averaged 3.9 per carry, and the one fumble by Brown, something that has to be cleaned up heading on the road.

Grade: B+

Receivers

Michigan State is said by many to have the best wide receiver trio in the conference in senior Blair White, sophomore B.J. Cunningham and junior Mark Dell. Whether they admit to that or not, the Wisconsin wide receivers took that to heart, and responded to the challenge.

Nick Toon continued to be the top guy among UW's wide receivers, catching three passes for 45 yards and a touchdown, Isaac Anderson caught three passes for 66 and David Gilreath added two catches for 21. Even so, the man of the day was Garrett Graham.

Graham caught five passes covering 58 yards and notched a career-best three touchdowns. Graham is the sixth Badger to catch at least three touchdown passes in one game and gave Graham 13 for his career, establishing a new mark for the position.

"Garrett's a playmaker," Anderson said. "He's a go-to guy, a security blanket, whatever you need. You call up Garrett's number, you'll be successful."

Graham's TD catches were as different as three scores could be. His first score was the great throw by Tolzien, the second was a low pass that Tolzien unloaded in front of the blitz that Graham scooped into his chest just before the ball hit the turf and the final one he hauled in wide open in the end zone.

"It was huge to start fast, getting the fans going and getting everybody into it," Graham said. "As an offense, you can't ask for more. I couldn't be happier with our offense's play."

With Lance Kendricks added four catches for 35 yards, it goes to show that no matter how many yards the wide receivers chalk up, the tight ends will always be the guys making the plays.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

With the Spartans have one of the Big Ten's least-potent rushing attacks (ranking No. 10 out of 11), Wisconsin's defensive line wasn't about to let the Spartans find their footing against them.

The Spartans rushed for only 90 yards against Wisconsin and MSU's leading rusher, Glenn Winston, was held to 52 yards and a fumble.

Senior Dan Moore had one of his best games of his short UW career, notching one quarterback hurry and a seven-yard sack. Senior O'Brien Schofield was held without a tackle, but registered two of UW's eight quarterback hurries on Saturday.

Anytime you limit an opponent to less than 100 yards and pressure the quarterback, it's a good day at the office.

Grade: A

Linebackers

When he graduated, how high will Michael Taylor rank on the list of great Wisconsin linebackers? He's well on his way, and he hasn't even played a full season yet.

Taylor led the team with eight tackles, notched a tackle for loss, registered a pass breakup and picked off sophomore Kirk Cousins for the first of UW's three interceptions for the game, setting the tone by sliding in front of an underneath route.

Culmer St. Jean and Jae McFadden each had four tackles and held court in the middle of the field.

Grade: B

Secondary

When Wisconsin lost to Michigan State last season, Spartans receiver Blair White had seven catches for 164 yards. On Saturday, the senior was the focal point of UW's defense and it showed, as White caught only one pass for a measly eight yards.

"If he plays well then they play well, so we were trying to take that out of them and disrupt them," Bielema said.

Wisconsin was all over the Spartan quarterbacks all game, as Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol combined to complete only 52 percent of their passes and threw three interceptions. Throw in the fumble recovery and UW again came out plus three in the turnover ratio.

"Turnover-wise, to come out plus-three in this game was huge," Bielema said. "Any time you get into Big Ten play and you get some extra possessions, it's going to (help)."

The Badger defense held Michigan State to 333 yards and 17 points and senior Chris Maragos was a big reason for that. Maragos picked off his third and fourth pass of the season. In four games, UW has forced 11 turnovers. A season ago, UW had 22 turnovers in 13 games.

The only bugaboo was the final two possessions, when the Spartans hit a combined four passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns to make the game closer than the final score indicated.

The latter of the scores was a 91-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left that, according to Maragos, the Badgers had been in prevent defense, but decided to change the coverage at the last second, a message that didn't get relayed, a small flub on an otherwise successful day.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

Much like Tolzien, No.44 is not going to be able to hide any longer on special teams.

Freshman linebacker Chris Borland was everywhere, from making the tackle on the opening kickoff to registering four quarterback hurries in the nickel package.

"He's so confident," Bielema said of Borland, who finished with five tackles. "He knows he's not Superman and that he's got to put in work, and that is the thing that I like about him. As he does more and more things, people are going to be aware of (No.) 44 and where he is."

Phil Welch knocked in a 41-yard field goal, his long attempt, and averaged 69.3 yards on kickoffs. Bradley Nortman punted five times for a 37-yard average, a long of 43 and three inside the 20, including his 37-yard first punt that was downed at the Spartans' 3.

UW went 2 for 2 in fielding onside kicks, but the kickoff and kickoff return units are still inconsistent. UW returned five kicks for 83 yards and while Michigan State returned six kicks for 139 yards. Through four games, that's been the biggest problem for UW, something that is tolerable for now.

Grade: B


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