For the 53rd time ever and the first since 2012, the No. 11/No. 10 (AP/Coaches) Wisconsin Badgers and No. 8 Michigan State Spartans face off this Saturday in East Lansing to open their respective Big Ten schedules.
If recent history is any indicator, the game should be entertaining and close—the last seven meetings between the programs have been decided by an average of 4.9 points and have provided some landmark moments:
The two schools have combined to win the Big Ten Championship in five of the last six seasons, including Michigan State’s championship a year ago. The Spartans begin their Big Ten title defense led by head coach Mark Dantonio in his 10th season with the program. Dantonio’s squad enters the game with a 2-0 record, returning mixed results. It kicked the season off by pulling away from Furman in a 28-13 win, but followed that up with a 36-28 victory at No. 18 Notre Dame last weekend.
Despite the inconsistent results, Michigan State boasts one of the nation’s top run defenses (72 yards allowed per game) and has seen solid quarterback play from first-year starter Tyler O’Connor. MSU enters Saturday as five-point favorites over UW.
Likewise, Wisconsin enters the game with some mixed results of its own. The Badgers opened the 2016 season with an upset over LSU and followed that by routing Akron and its high-powered offense. In Week 3, however, the Badgers were pushed to the limit by the Georgia State Panthers before pulling out a 23-14 victory. Wisconsin may have made the mistake of looking past the Panthers to its Big Ten schedule, which features three games against AP top-10 teams in four weeks.
When and where is the game?
Wisconsin and Michigan State will kick off 11 a.m. CT from Spartan Stadium in East Lansing Michigan.
How can I watch?
For the third straight week, the Badgers can be found on Big Ten Network; Kevin Kugler will handle play-by-play, Matt Millen will bring color commentary and Lisa Byington will work the sidelines.
How can I stream the game online?
Via the BTN2Go app on iOS or Android, or www.btn2go.com.
How can I listen to it on the radio?
On the Badger Sports Network, where you’ll find the usual grouping of Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas, Mark Tauscher and Patrick Herb. On satellite radio, you’ll find the broadcast on Sirius 84 / XM 84. Otherwise, head to BadgerSportsNetwork.com to find it. You can also listen on iHeartRadio (iOS/Android/online) by searching WIBA.
What can I expect to see?
Wisconsin (3-0; Depth Chart)
Last week: 23-17 win vs. Georgia State
Polls: No. 11 in AP Top 25 (last week: No. 9), No. 10 in Amway Coaches Poll (last week: No. 12)
Head coach: Paul Chryst, second season at Wisconsin (13-3)
Michigan State (2-0; Depth Chart)
Last week: 36-28 win at Notre Dame
Polls: No. 8 in AP Top 25 (last week: No. 12), No. 8 in Coaches Poll (last week: No. 8)
Head coach: Mark Dantonio, tenth season at Michigan State (89-33)
When Michigan State has the ball: Leading the way for the Spartans at quarterback is Tyler O’Connor, a fifth-year senior who has been effective in the team’s first two games. The Ohio native took the offensive reigns from MSU’s all-time leading passer Connor Cook (now with the Oakland Raiders) and has completed over 72 percent of his throws thus far, the top percentage in the Big Ten.
O’Connor has plenty of options at receiver, as three Spartans wide receivers have more than three catches and 40 yards per game. Senior R.J. Shelton, a Beaver Dam, Wis., native, was the only returning receiver with more than seven catches, but others have emerged. Shelton is a big-play threat who caught eight passes for 80 yards against Notre Dame, and the Spartans use him in a variety of ways. O’Connor’s other two main targets have been senior Monty Madaris (seven catches, 125 yards) and Donnie Corley ( six catches for 105 yards, including this great grab against Notre Dame).
The Spartans have matched their passing production with their running game (215.5 yards rushing per game, 215.5 passing). Leading the charge on the ground for the second straight year is running back L.J. Scott. Following his 699-yard 2015 season and impressive go-ahead touchdown in the Big Ten Championship game, Scott has averaged just over 100 yards per game in 2016 on 4.8 yards per carry. Junior Gerald Homes sits behind Scott, but busted a 73-yard run to go along with two touchdowns against Notre Dame. Holmes and Scott run behind an offensive line that lost two players from 2015 to the NFL but continues to improve.
O’Connor, Scott and the other members of the Spartans offense will face their stiffest challenge yet in the Wisconsin defense. The Badgers defense enters Week 4 ranked 13th against the run (79.7 yards per game) and in total defense (261 yards per game). They’ll once again be without linebacker Chris Orr (out for season) and Natrell Jamerson, but defensive lineman Billy Hirschfeld is the only other defensive player listed on this week’s initial injury report. In order to win, the Badgers will need to continue their success against the run and shore up the mistakes that allowed Georgia State to gain 269 yards through the air a week ago.
When Wisconsin has the ball: It was reported on Sunday, “not confirmed” on Monday, accidentally confirmed on Tuesday and officially announced on Wednesday that redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook will make his first career start on Saturday. Hornibrook took over for senior Bart Houston against Georgia State to lead Wisconsin on three straight scoring drives. The competition increases on Saturday, as Hornibrook and the Badgers take on an elite Michigan State rushing defense.
To make matters even more challenging, three Wisconsin running backs were listed on this week’s first injury report, including the team’s top running back Corey Clement. Clement was seen in full pads in Wednesday’s practice, but his status for Saturday has yet to be announced. Without Clement, Wisconsin ran for only 3.8 yards per carry a week ago, so his return may be key against the Spartans. Clement, the other backs and the Wisconsin offensive line will need a stellar performance to help their inexperienced quarterback in his first start.
Regardless of Wisconsin’s ability to run the ball, a victory in a big game like this typically requires a key play or two be made by the quarterback. When Hornibrook needs to go to the air, it will be interesting to see how much of a difference tight end Troy Fumagalli can make. Fumagalli left the Georgia State game with an injury; he wasn’t listed on the injury report but did not fully participate in practice during the week. It will also be interesting to analyze how quickly receivers Jazz Peavy and Rob Wheelwright gel with Hornibrook given their success with Houston earlier in the season.
The Spartans defensive front is led by Malik McDowell, a defensive lineman that has already had to field questions about his bright NFL future. The talented junior will be moved around by defensive coordinator Harlon Burnett in order to make plays. Wisconsin’s offensive line will need to at least contain McDowell to make room for the running game and give Hornibrook time to find his targets. McDowell and his fellow defensive linemen are backed by a deep and talented linebacker corps. Junior linebacker Jon Reschke led the way in the win over Notre Dame, tallying eight tackles (one for loss), a forced fumble and an interception. Fellow linebacker Riley Bullough leads the team in tackles and will also make it tough for the Badgers to move the ball on the ground.
Adding to the intrigue of Hornibrook’s first start is the Spartans’ secondary, the Spartans’ defenses biggest question mark coming into the season. Safeties Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox handle the back end, while Darian Hicks and Vayante Copeland are the corners. As mentioned during B5Q’s Q&A this week with The Only Colors, Hicks played well against Notre Dame but has struggled with larger receivers (hello, Rob Wheelwright).
Wisconsin kicker Rafaeal Gaglianone will look to shore up any issues that may have caused his missed field goal a week ago, Gaglianone has been ruled out with a back injury. Andrew Endicott will take over placekicking duties, while kickoff specialist P.J. Rosowski will look to continue his impressive start for the Badgers.
The Spartans have also been solid on special teams, but haven’t been without flaws. Kicker Michael Geiger missed the team’s only field goal attempt and kickoff specialist Kevin Cronin has sent two kicks out of bounds, resulting in penalties. Both in 2016 and historically speaking, Dantonio hasn’t shied away from trickery, as holder Matt Macksood took a snap and threw a two-point conversion against Notre Dame.