Russell Wilson will make all the difference Saturday in East Lansing.
Hint: It has something to do with Russell Wilson
Let's get this out of the way immediately: I think Wisconsin is going to win by at least 10 points Saturday.
That doesn't mean I don't see any way in which Michigan State steals the game, but would I be surprised to see that happen? Yes. In fact, I'd be shocked.
What does Bret Bielema have to do to avoid a second-straight upset in East Lansing? He already did it. He brought Russell Wilson to Wisconsin and Wilson makes all the difference between last year and this year.
For the Spartans to win, two things are going to have to happen:
1) Michigan State is going to have to play defense on offense. It will need to sustain long drives that result in touchdowns. In this game, keeping the ball away from the Badgers' offense is just as important for the Spartans as scoring. Field goals aren't good enough and neither are quick strikes. Nebraska learned that the hard way. After both of their first quarter touchdowns, the Badgers got the ball back and scored before the Blackshirts even blinked.
And then, even if Michigan State manages to accomplish these two goals, they are going to have to do a lot more.
Consider this: Last year the Spartans accomplished the first goal mentioned above and did enough in regards to the second goal to end up with a 34-24 victory in East Lansing. They won the time of possession 36:24-23:36. That stat was even more important in the second half when both teams scored 14 points, but Michigan State held the ball for 21 of the 30 minutes.
Think about that. The Badgers scored just as much as the Spartans in the second half, but Michigan State had possession of the ball twice as long. That was mainly a result of the Spartans going 9-for-18 on 3rd down and 2-for-3 on fourth down. Who knows how many points Wisconsin would have scored had they been able to get the ball back.
In addition, Michigan State did enough on the line of scrimmage to make things uncomfortable for quarterback Scott Tolzien. He was hurried three times, had five passes broken up and fumbled the ball while being sacked once. Tolzien finished the game just 11-for-25 for 127 yards and a touchdown, by far his worst performance of the season. Yet the Badgers still managed three touchdowns, so what happens when you add Russell Wilson's strength, quickness and strong arm into the mix this year?
And, even with Michigan State largely accomplishing both of the goals I referenced above last year -- not to mention giving up a special teams touchdown as well -- the Badgers still were one stop away from getting the ball back with a chance to win the game. Unfortunately they couldn't get that stop and Michigan State iced the game with a touchdown on 4th-and-1 on the goal line in the final minutes.
Now, usually I don't put this much stock into a game played over a year ago, but considering how similar these teams are as last season, I think looking back at last year's game helps a lot.
The biggest difference? Russell Wilson.
Michigan State fans will argue another difference is that their defense is better than last year. It is. But so is Wisconsin's. The Spartans rank No. 4 nationally in scoring defense? But guess what? The Badgers rank No. 3.
And before you throw Wisconsin's schedule at me as the reason why the Badgers rank higher in scoring defense, you should know that UW has actually faced better offenses. The average scoring offense ranking of UW's five FBS opponents is 68.4. The average for Michigan State's five FBS opponents is 73.4.
Meanwhile, Michigan State is ranked No. 65 nationally in scoring offense (28 points per game). The Badgers are No. 1 nationally with 50.17 points per game.
That's where Russell Wilson comes in. To negate him in this game, Michigan State is going to have to do everything it did last year and then a lot more.
With their three-headed rushing attack, Michigan State could very well control the ball and win the time of possession. They'll also have to be very efficient on third down as they were last year. But scoring touchdowns could be the problem. Wisconsin has a bend-but-don't-break-defense. When it comes to rushing, the Badger defense only ranks No. 42 giving up 123.17 yards per game. But they lock it down in the end zone and have only given up four rushing touchdowns this season.
Last year Michigan State scored touchdowns on 3-of-6 red zone possessions. They'll probably have to do even better Saturday, and considering UW has only given up seven touchdowns all season, that's going to be tough.
So, clearly, keeping the ball away from Wilson and scoring touchdowns isn't merely enough for the Spartans. They have to find a way to contain all the weapons Wisconsin has and it won't be easy.
To do this, the Spartans have to win the line of scrimmage on defense and then some. They have to put Wilson in uncomfortable situations. They have to pressure him, but they also have to contain him.
Nebraska managed to sack Wilson twice, but that wasn't enough. The Cornhuskers had three other quarterback hurries, but Wilson tucked the ball and ran for first downs in all three of those situations. The point is, you can't just pressure him, you have to put him on the ground. That's why Michigan State will have to do more than just win the line of scrimmage. If you look at the times Tolzien was pressured against MSU last year, you realize Wilson would have had a good chance to get out of all those situations except maybe the one where Tolzien fumbled the football. Thus, Sparty has to do more.
And Michigan State knows it has to play even better than it did last year. But I'm not sure that's going to be enough.
Now, could they get help from Wisconsin? Sure. Last year the Badgers dropped passes, gave up a special teams touchdown and looked inept defensively on third down. And that was a day game. This is a road night game under the lights on national television. The pressure is on.
But do I envision all those things happening again? No. Last year's loss to Michigan State is still fresh in the minds of the Badgers and they are going to be extremely focused.
Of course, once again, there's Russell Wilson. He didn't play in that game a year ago and he's never played a road game in the Big Ten. Could that be a problem? Maybe. But honestly, based on what you have seen from this kid, do you think that's going to phase him? I doubt it.
Add all this up and a Badger loss just doesn't make sense. They're simply too good on offense.
Wisconsin wins comfortably, 34-20.