Before this helter-skelter season got under way, this Michigan State game was The Game. The latest entrant to a budding rivalry we've already called the Big Ten's best was supposed to determine the king of the post-Russel Wilson, post-Kirk Cousins era and assert one team's supremacy in the Big Ten. After all, with Penn State and Ohio State all ineligible and stuff, who else would do that?
|YEAR (since Bielema took over)||RESULT||LOCATION|
|2011 (B1G Championship Game)||W 42-39||Indianapolis|
|2011 (That bleepin' Hail Mary)||L 37-31||East Lansing|
|2010||L 34-24||East Lansing|
|2008||L 25-24||East Lansing|
Now, of course, none of that is really happening. Michigan State is a startling 4-4 while Wisconsin is just rounding into shape, thanks to a renewed running game that has racked up 977 rushing yards over the past three games. The Badgers have outscored Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota by a combined 107-41 in that span, and suddenly everything appears to be rounding into shape.
To get a grip on what to expect from this Spartans team, we chatted with Chris Vannini of The Only Colors, SB Nation's fine Michigan State blog. Chris talks us through MSU's "season of frustration and disappointment," breaks down one of the nation's top defenses and makes his prediction at the end. In the addendum at the bottom, he also has an interesting idea for a football rivalry that will take an unfortunate hiatus until 2015 after Saturday.
1. B5Q: To start, how are Michigan State fans feeling about the season thus far? What's gone right or wrong, and how do you expect it all to translate into Saturday's game?
Chris: It's been a season of frustration and disappointment so far. The coaching staff and the players built up the hype in the offseason, saying there wasn't going to be a drop-off in the offense, and the defense would be great again. They were half-right. The offense has been downright atrocious, and it's been for a lot of reasons. The receivers, none of whom at had starting experience) have had trouble getting open and making catches. The offense line has been decimated by injuries and can't block anything. As talented as Le'Veon Bell is, it's hard to expect much out of him with the lack of blocking. That leaves Andrew Maxwell, who has made some good throws and good reads, but certainly has had problems, too. Add in questionable playcalling, and it's just a mess everywhere you look.
It's been the complete opposite for the defense. They're No. 5 in total defense, and perhaps the best red zone defense in the country. They're not getting the negative plays they feasted on last year, but, if anything, that makes the total yardage number even more impressive. The frustrating thing is they allowed Iowa to go almost the length of the field to tie the game in the final minute, and let Michigan get into game-winning field-goal range last week. They haven't made the play at the end when they've needed it the most, but it's hard to put much blame on this group. They lost to Michigan without giving up a touchdown. What are you gonna do?
I expect Saturday to go like all of MSU's Big Ten losses have. The defense keeps the game within range the whole way, and it comes down to if MSU's offense can make enough plays.
2. B5Q: How has MSU's offense functioned so far this season? Looking at the Spartans' results, I see some big point totals but also only 26 scored over the past two weeks.
Chris: I touched on a lot of that above. As for the big point totals, those have come against no-so-good defenses in Indiana and Central Michigan. This offense put up more than 400 yards on Boise State, and then 41 points on Central Michigan, and things seemed to be cruising along. But then the starting right tackle (Fou Fonoti) went down a few days before Notre Dame, and the line was wrecked by the Irish, leaving no chance for the offense. The starting center (Travis Jackson) went down against Ohio State. Both are done for the year. The left guard (Blake Treadwell) hasn't been healthy all year, and the left tackle (Dan France) missed Michigan because of a concussion, although he should be back this week. This was supposed to be the best line of the Mark Dantonio era, but they've used a different starting five in almost every game.
3. B5Q: Was there/is there still any Kirk Cousins hangover?
Chris: I don't think it's a Kirk Cousins hangover as much of a "replace the entire passing offense" hangover. Along with losing one of the best quarterbacks in school history, they lost their leading receiver all-time in B.J. Cunningham, versatile Keshawn Martin (who is now making plays with the Texans), sure-handed Keith Nichol and two tight ends in Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek. They also lost speedy back Edwin Baker, who provided a different skill set than Bell. That's hard to replace, any way you slice it. We thought things would be OK, because Dantonio said they would, and his preseason predictions have typically proven correct. Not this time. Not at all.
4. B5Q: And the defense? It's still the Big Ten's top-ranked unit, and I don't think Wisconsin fans will ever underestimate it.
Chris: I think the losses here were underrated, too, as few as there were. They returned eight starters. One of the new starters is at safety, where Kurtis Drummond has been great. But the other two losses were the defensive tackles. MSU really misses Jerel Worthy's ability to blow a play up before it starts. As mentioned above, MSU doesn't have the negative plays they had last year. The defensive line isn't getting a ton of pressure on their own, although the run-stopping has been solid. Because they haven't gotten as much pressure, they've given up quite a few big passing plays, especially on cornerback Johnny Adams. But again, it's hard to ask much more from this group. They're the only reason MSU hasn't been blown out of every game, given the state of the offense.
5. B5Q: Wisconsin has been remarkably difficult to predict this year. Given that and what you've seen from Michigan State, what kind of game are you expecting on Saturday?
Chris: MSU started out inconsistent, but they're settling into the postion of kinda sucking. I think the defense will keep this low-scoring, and it will be up to the offense to make some plays. On the other hand, if they give up multiple scores early, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Spartans fold up. I thought the same last week, and the defense held strong, trailing just 6-0 at halftime. But this is a fragile team, and a slow start could put them in a hole they can't climb out of.
6. B5Q: As quickly as you can, how do you breakdown the advantages between these teams on offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff and intangibles?
Chris: I have to admit I haven't seen a lot of Wisconsin this year, but safe to say the recipe is still basically the same? MSU is going to need to get pressure with linebacker blitzes, because the front four isn't going to do it on its own. It worked in 2010 with Greg Jones, but it didn't work last year. On offense? I don't know. I'm not counting on solid blocking, so I'm hoping for enough to give Maxwell some time for big passing plays downfield. MSU is going to stick with the run no matter what, and Bell had a good championship game last year, so hopefully some of that.
7. B5Q: Lastly, how large of a Spartans contingent should we expect at Camp Randall on Saturday? And do you have a prediction?
Chris: Don't expect many MSU fans. The bandwagon has gotten quite small again, and outside of the parent section, I don't think many are going to head to what they expect to be a bloodbath.
As for me, I'm not expecting a bloodbath. I'm expecting this to come down to the end again. Will MSU get the big stop or make the big play on offense? For some reason, I have a feeling they will. 17-14 Spartans. Before you call me a homer, I picked Michigan 21-10 last week. I think there has been too much bad luck this year, so something goes right on Saturday.
ADDENDUM: We need to start referring to MSU and Wisconsin as a border rivalry. The border with Wisconsin is Michigan's largest with any one state. With Tom Izzo being from the Upper Peninsula, it might fit better for hoops. For the last year and a half, I've been calling it the #BorderBattle. Also works for Packers/Lions and when the Brewers and Tigers face off every once in a while. It's gonna become a thing. Get on the train before it's too late.