No series in the Big Ten has favored the home team as consistently as Michigan State-Wisconsin over the past decade. Indeed, the Badgers haven't left East Lansing as winners since 2002, while the Spartans haven't won in Madison since 2001. After a scheduling quirk forced Wisconsin to play road games each of the last two seasons in this rivalry, the UW players and coaches look forward to welcoming MSU to Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 2009.
For Michigan State to buck the trend, it will need to play markedly better than it has over the past several weeks. The Spartans are a disappointing 4-4, but three of their four losses have been by three points or fewer, including last week's 12-10 heart-breaker at the hands of arch-rival Michigan. MSU figures to respond in one of two ways: either the team will fold under the realization that there is not much to play for in a stacked Legends Division, or it will make this game against Wisconsin its season.
We think the Spartans will give a good effort against the team that has single-handedly kept them out of the Rose Bowl each of the past two years. Despite losing to the Spartans in road games in 2010 and 2011, the Badgers earned the BCS nod both seasons, first by virtue of finishing higher in the BCS standings and then by beating MSU in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
These two teams haven't been particularly fond of one another under their respective coaches. In 2007 at Camp Randall Stadium, Spartans players celebrated after a big hit on Wisconsin wide receiver Kyle Jefferson left him needing an ambulance. MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn't shy about engaging in some pregame trash talk and his players tend to follow suit. Mention was made of trying to hurt Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson before the Big Ten title game a season ago. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who has already suffered at least one concussion since the beginning of August, is a likely target for some big hits this time around.
Offensively, Michigan State is in disarray. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell has been underwhelming, completing just 55.2 percent of his passes with a subpar 7-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Spartans desperately miss the poise, accuracy and leadership of the departed Kirk Cousins. Junior tailback Le'Veon Bell is one of the most talented backs in the conference, and he has already amassed 984 yards to go with eight touchdown runs. He was held below 70 yards rushing by both Ohio State and Michigan, however, largely due to an offensive line that has seen three starters miss time with injuries.
MSU also misses last year's big-play wide receivers, B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. The Spartan wideouts haven't helped lift Maxwell's completion percentage by dropping a ton of balls. Sophomore Keith Mumphrey leads the team with 349 receiving yards. The Badgers' defense has been stout all season, holding most of the quarterbacks it's faced below their averages. In cold weather conditions against a unit that has struggled all season, and with a raucous Homecoming crowd behind it, expect the defense to dominate Saturday.
Michigan State can play some defense of its own, however. Despite Joel Stave's relative success as a redshirt freshman at quarterback for Wisconsin, Narduzzi's troops are likely licking their chops. It starts up front, where defensive ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush are elite pass rushers. With Wisconsin offensive tackle Ricky Wagner expected to miss this game due to injury, it will be up to Ryan Groy and Rob Havenstein to neutralize the Spartans' pressure.
All three linebackers - Chris Norman, Denicos Allen and Max Bullough - are solid and experienced. And don't forget about junior safety Isaiah Lewis, who famously provided some bulletin-board material in advance of last year's championship game and then committed the roughing penalty on Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman that sealed the Badgers' Big Ten title. He will be looking for redemption and may find it, since Stave still throws way too many ill-advised passes.
If there were ever a game where Montee Ball needed to perform like a Heisman Trophy candidate, it's this one. Ball has gashed the Spartans' defense in the past, but he had help from veteran quarterbacks and stable offensive lines. We think Ball will need to put the offense on his back in this one. In less than 24 hours, we will see if he can do it.
Kicker Dan Conroy has been inconsistent for Michigan State, having missed 6-of-12 field goal attempts from 30-49 yards. After trading off between Jack Russell and Kyle French, it appears the Badgers are hitching their wagon to French and not looking back. French has made 6-of-9 field goal attempts in 2012.
Who has the edge?
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