This Saturday, Wisconsin hosts Michigan State at Camp Randall for the first time since 2009, but much has unfolded between these two teams away from Madison since that meeting. In the past two seasons, the Badgers and Spartans played three thrilling games, two of them in East Lansing and one in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. Michigan State came out on top in the regular season showdowns, while Wisconsin beat out the Spartans in the BCS standings in 2010 and in the Big Ten Championship in 2011.
All three games were offensive shootouts, but don't expect a fourth on Saturday. The offenses fell off from last year, and the defenses have been stout this season. The Wisconsin offense has looked much improved in recent games, but will they be able to find success against the Spartans, who boast the stingiest scoring defense in the Big Ten? As it so often does for Wisconsin, it will come down to how well the offensive line holds up against the Michigan State front.
Wisconsin's offensive line
The unexpected firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson sent reverberations throughout the Wisconsin program, but the running game and offensive line play has improved on a weekly basis since Bart Miller took over as interim coach after the Oregon State loss. Michigan State will provide the toughest test so far for this line, who may be without left tackle Ricky Wagner's services for the second straight week. If he can't go, Ryan Groy will shift over to LT from LG and Robert Burge will take over for Groy at LG. This arrangement worked fine versus the Gophers, but you'd still like to have the senior leader Wagner back in there if possible.
The line's primary goal this week should be preventing disastrous negative plays in the passing game. Giving QB Joel Stave ample time to find open receivers and keeping him from taking too many hits will go a long way towards preventing quarterback fumbles and interceptions. This isn't a game where Wisconsin's offense has to play spectacularly: 20 points may be enough to secure the victory. But you would like to see the Badgers pass to set up the run. If Wisconsin can't establish some sort of downfield passing game, it will be a long day for Montee and James. The Wisconsin running game looked great against Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota, but Michigan State's defense cannot and will not be steamrolled in the same fashion.
Michigan State's defensive line
The Spartans' defensive line no longer has the services of defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, and the sack totals have fallen accordingly. Michigan State had 45 sacks last season, tied for third most in the nation. They only have 6 sacks this season, tied for fourth worst in the nation. That doesn't mean that this defensive line sans Worthy is a bunch of bums. Teams usually get more sacks when they are playing with a significant lead and are expecting the pass, a situation the Spartans offense hasn't been able to create this season.
Even without excellent sack totals, this Michigan State defense has played at a high level. They are only giving up about one touchdown per game and are fifth nationally in yards allowed. Aptly-named defensive ends William Gholston (30 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 5 QB hits) and Marcus Rush (24 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 QB hits) are athletic and disruptive. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi runs a 4-3 over/cover 4 base defense, and you'll see the safeties creep up near the line of scrimmage to load the box from time to time. The first goal for Sparty's defensive line is to shut down the run. If this is accomplished, play action passes (which Wisconsin is very reliant on) become less effective. When Stave drops back, dial up the pressure and force him into bad decisions. And they need to do their part to create some turnovers however they can get them, because the Michigan State offense can't get out of its own way.
Wisconsin's offensive line has done fine against the Spartans in recent meetings, but the departures of offensive line coach Bob Bostad and a plethora of great linemen has changed the complexion of the five guys up front. But it's who you have and not who you lost. This rings true for Michigan State's defensive line as well. Both groups are young and talented, and will likely be dominant in future seasons. The caliber of talent is similar on both sides, and who takes control at the line really comes down to who wants it more. There's no love lost when these two teams face off, but the Spartans are sliding. It can be hard to play at your highest level when your offense gives you no help.
I'd expect this particular battle at the line to end as a draw, which is exactly what Wisconsin wants. The Spartans' D-Line won't get mauled off of the line of scrimmage, but MSU needs them to come up with big momentum-shifting plays to get the ball back in good field position for the offense. That's a lot to ask on the road in Camp Randall against a refocused offensive line, especially if their offense is unable to get them a lead early.