Fifth Quarter Consensus: Badgers squeak by Spartans

The Predictions:

Jake Harris (4-0, +65): Michigan State 27, Wisconsin 21

Adam Hoge (4-0, +80): Wisconsin 31, Michigan State 30

John Veldhuis (4-0, +95): Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 24

Adam Tupitza (4-0, +100): Michigan State 31, Wisconsin 27

Phil Mitten (2-0, +36): Wisconsin 33, Michigan State 30

 

The Reasoning

Consider yourself lucky if you don't have a vested interest in this game.  While the SEC and Pac-10 are stealing a lot of the spotlight this weekend, the Badgers' trip to East Lansing should be one of the most entertaining games on the schedule, if you are able to comfortably enjoy it.  Wisconsin and Michigan State feature similar strengths; both teams have experienced, efficient quarterbacks, a strong stable of running backs, and defenses that are stout against the run.

At this point in the season, though, Wisconsin's personnel are just slightly ahead of Michigan State's at virtually every position.  Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins was splitting time with Keith Nichol a season ago, while Badgers signal-caller Scott Tolzien was starting all 13 games and leading the conference in passing efficiency.  Edwin Baker is a nice running back for MSU, backed up by a surprisingly good freshman in Le'Veon Bell, while John Clay is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, backed up by the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week in James C. White.  The secondary has been somewhat of a weakness for both teams the past couple years, but the Badgers' veterans have improved considerably, while the Spartans recently gave up 31 points to a 1-3 Notre Dame team at home.

Yes, the home team has won the last five games in this series and, yes, the Badgers haven't won in East Lansing since 2002.  But Wisconsin has only played two games there in that time, and in 2008 the Badgers held an 11-point lead with less than nine minutes to play, before penalties and poor clock management derailed the effort and led to a one-point loss in the final seconds.

This is a smarter and more disciplined team, as evidenced by the fact the 2010 Badgers rank second in the country for fewest penalties per game (2.8 for 25 yards).  The offense has played two straight contests without a single turnover. 

Michigan State is a very good 4-0 team, and the home team will certainly be playing with a lot of emotion, as head coach Mark Dantonio returns just two weeks after suffering a mild heart attack hours after their thrilling win over Notre Dame.  But if the Badgers march down the field to take a 7-0 lead on their opening drive, as they often have this season, that emotional edge can be neutralized quickly.

 

The Dissent

I can only speak for myself when I say that I hope my prediction is wrong, but I'm making it anyway.  Those of us who write for Bucky's Fifth Quarter make no effort to hide the fact that we are Badger fans ourselves.  In a way, just admitting that actually increases our credibility.

In my view, this is the single most important game in Bret Bielema's tenure as head coach at Wisconsin thus far.  The result of this game sets the tone for one of the most highly anticipated seasons in Wisconsin football history.  We have already seen what a loss in this type of game can do to a season.  In 2008, the Badgers were 3-0 and ranked eighth in the country when they blew a 19-point halftime lead at Michigan to start Big Ten play 0-1.  Wisconsin went on to lose their next three games and finished the season 7-6.

While a study of Wisconsin's and Michigan State's rosters shines favorably on Bucky, a study of the Badgers' recent history in these types of games makes things look bleak, as Adam Hoge details.  Here are some numbers to chew on:

- In four conference seasons, Bielema's teams have just one win against a Big Ten team that finished with a plus-.500 overall record.

- In four conference seasons, Bielema's teams have only one win against a Big Ten team ranked in the AP top 25 (home or away).

- Wisconsin's overall record against ranked teams (coaches or AP) under Bielema is 5-9.  Three of those wins came against non-conference foes (Arkansas, Fresno State, Miami).

- Bielema's Badgers went a combined 4-8 away from Camp Randall Stadium from 2007 to 2008.

- Spartan Stadium is one of six Big Ten venues where Bielema's teams have yet to notch a victory.  The others are Michigan Stadium, Beaver Stadium, Ohio Stadium, Memorial Stadium (Champaign) and Ryan Field.

Like Adam, I am not trying to pile on the Badgers; I am trying to use facts to illustrate my point.  Wisconsin has been subpar on the road and when facing good competition under Bielema.  This game is a potentially deadly combination of the two.

I want to pick Wisconsin.  But doing so would mean making a prediction that something that has never happened will happen for the first time on Saturday.  I have demonstrated confidence heading into similar games before.  I thought the Badgers would beat Illinois in Champaign in 2007.  I thought they would win in Ann Arbor in 2008.

But as I think back over the Bielema era, I'm having trouble coming up with an example of Wisconsin going into a hostile Big Ten environment and coming away with a difficult victory.

I hope the Badgers prove me wrong.  I even think there is a good chance they will prove me wrong.  But continuing to do the exact same thing and expecting different results is insanity.

Until Wisconsin proves otherwise, past results give me no reason to think this team can beat a 4-0 opponent outside of Madison.

Let me reiterate: I hope I'm wrong.

 

Who has the edge?

Offense: Wisconsin

Defense: Wisconsin

Special Teams: Michigan State

Coaching: Wisconsin

Intangibles: Michigan State

 

-Jake Harris

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