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Wisconsin vs. Michigan State: One Badger, one Spartan who could determine the game

The Badgers’ Big Ten opener will be a grinder. Who will make a difference?

NCAA Football: Furman at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin: QB Alex Hornibrook

While head coach Paul Chryst and the Wisconsin depth chart may say differently, it looks like the redshirt freshman will get his first career start this weekend. Making that first conference start on the road is pressure enough for a young quarterback, but three of Wisconsin’s four tailbacks are listed on this week’s injury report. The task looks even more intimidating when looking at the team lining up across the ball. Michigan State, No. 8 in this week’s AP Top 25, surrenders only 72 rushing yards per game (eighth in the country) and less than 2.5 yards per rush.

Since 2011, the Badgers have won 14 road Big Ten games and lost six. Here’s how the passing game has fared in each:

Big Ten Road Wins, 2011-2015 (per game)
Games Comp Att % Yds TD Int Pts Rush Yds
14 14.1 22.8 61.76% 162.0 1.3 0.6 34.3 230.1
Big Ten Road Losses, 2011-2015 (per game)
Games Comp Att % Yds TD INT Pts Rush Yds
6 15.5 28.0 55.36% 223.2 1.8 1.3 24.3 151.8

In Big Ten road losses, Wisconsin quarterbacks drop five percentage points in completions, double their interceptions and have about 80 yards less in support from the running game. These tendencies, combined with the strength of the Spartans’ run defense, puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Hornibrook.

With this responsibility comes some opportunity and/or optimism. If there are any weaknesses in the Michigan State defense, it comes by way of the secondary. Through two games, the Spartans have surrendered 241.5 passing yards per game, 85th in the NCAA. This includes nearly 350 yards to Notre Dame last weekend.

If that doesn’t give Hornibrook some hope on Saturday, there is precedent for success. Hornibrook wasn’t even in grade school yet, but in 1999 another redshirt freshman made his first career start, on the road, in Big Ten play: Brooks Bollinger. Bollinger led the Badgers back from a 17-0 deficit at Ohio State, defeating the Buckeyes 42-17. Head coach Barry Alvarez explained Bollinger’s performance that day, “He managed the clock, he managed the noise, he moved the sticks and he made play after play.”

If Paul Chryst can say the same about Alex Hornibrook by Saturday evening, the Badgers will have a shot at knocking off the Spartans.

Michigan State: DT Malik McDowell

On that aforementioned October day in Columbus, Bollinger completed 15 of 27 passes for 167 yards and no interceptions. That’s a solid performance, but it was paired with 78 rushing yards from Bollinger and another 161 from running back Ron Dayne. The Michigan State defense doesn’t figure to allow Hornibrook that type of support on Saturday; again, the Spartans’ defense allows 72 yards per game and 2.48 per carry. In fact, without at least moderate success on the ground, Wisconsin will have a tough time finding a victory in East Lansing. Revisiting the games mentioned above, Wisconsin has averaged just over 150 yards per game in Big Ten road losses since 2011. However, if you remove the top and bottom performances (284 yards vs. Northwestern in 2014 and 56 yards vs. Nebraska in 2012), that number shrinks to 95 per game:

Big Ten Road Losses, 2011-2015
Game Opponent Rush Yds
Week 5, 2014 Northwestern 284
Week 5, 2013 Ohio State 104
Week 5, 2012 Nebraska 56
Week 12, 2012 Penn State 158
Week 7, 2011 Michigan State 220
Week 8, 2011 Ohio State 89
Total 911
Per Game 151.83

This all leads to the main issue for Wisconsin: the Michigan State rush defense. Leading the charge for the Spartans’ eighth-ranked rush defense is junior defensive tackle Malik McDowell. Standing at 6’6, 276 pounds, McDowell has been receiving national attention for his talent for quite some time. He was listed at No. 6 on Mel Kiper’s “Way Too Early Big Board” for the 2017 NFL draft and has been listed higher by other outlets. While his numbers this season (seven tackles, 1.5 for loss, zero sacks) won’t jump off the page, he possesses a skill set that certainly jumps off the screen on gameday. Wisconsin will need to know where he is lined up on each play and contain him if it hope to move the ball on the ground. McDowell’s disruptive ability, combined with the rest of the strong Spartans front, could ultimately shut down the Wisconsin rushing attack and, in turn, its hopes of starting 1-0 in conference play.