Big Ten Game of the Week: #6 Wisconsin vs. #16 Michigan State – Preview, Predictions & Poll

Last week, Michigan State stymied Denard Robinson and Michigan while Wisconsin predictably racked up their 6th straight lopsided win.

This Saturday night two of the Big Ten’s best teams will meet in East Lansing, Michigan.  The game will have Big Ten Championship game implications as both teams are currently favored to win their divisions in the Big Ten.

#16 Michigan State, ranked 4th in the FBS in points allowed (10.8), is coming off a signature win against rival Michigan.  In that game, the Spartans held Denard Robinson, one of the most talented playmakers in all of college football, to just 165 total yards en route to a convincing 28-14 win.  Running back Edwin Baker struggled to hold onto the ball but still powered the offense with 167 yards and a touchdown.

edwin baker

#6 Wisconsin is coming off another impressive beat down, this time of hapless Indiana.  In the last two games between Wisconsin and Indiana the Badgers have outscored the Hoosiers by a score of 142-27.  Russell Wilson threw for a score and caught another, and the Badgers used their strong running back to beat the Hoosiers into submission.

Wisconsin-Michigan State: Things to consider for Saturday

One popular cliché is that good defense beats good offense.  In this case both teams have good defenses, while Wisconsin would seem to have a decided advantage on offense.

wisconsin-michigan-state-preview-point-spread-prediction-kickoff-timeThe visiting Badgers haven’t faced a serious challenge yet as they have won their 6 games by an average of more than 40 points.  Wisconsin’s powerful offense averages over 500 yards per game.  Quarterback Russell Wilson has thrown for 1557 yards and accounted for 17 total touchdowns and just one interception.  Running backs Montee Ball (653 yards, 16 TD) and James White (416 yards, 4 TD) are both averaging over 6 yards per carry.  Nick Toon leads the receiving corps with 447 yards and 6 scores.

Wisconsin is so effective because they pressure the defense in many different ways.  Wilson is very mobile and can run when he needs to, and the strength of the running game makes the defense stay honest.  With so many weapons and the ability to play almost any offensive style with success, coach Bret Bielema has to like his team’s chances in any game.

The Badgers’ defense deserves credit as well, as they lead the FBS in points allowed with just 9.7 per game.  Of course, with the exception of Nebraska – who was held 20 points below their season average – they haven’t been truly tested by a great offense yet.  Still, Wisconsin has done what they are supposed to do in each game, dominating on both sides of the ball.  They also are plus-6 in turnover differential, having only given away three possessions in 6 games.

The Badgers haven’t won in Spartan Stadium since 2002.

Michigan State has succeeded mostly because of a stifling defense.  Unfortunately, one of their best defensive playmakers, defensive end William Gholston, due to a suspension for throwing a punch and twisting the helmet of Robinson during the Michigan game.

The Spartans have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher, so the matchup against Ball and White will be especially interesting to watch.  No team Michigan State has faced so far has such a complete offense, so coach Mark Dantonio must have his team ready to defend the balanced attack of the Badgers.

Offensively, the Spartans will look to Edwin Baker and LeVeon Bell to carry their ground game.  Both backs have been effective combining for 706 yards and 8 touchdowns through 6 games while averaging nearly 5 yards per carry.

Kirk Cousins will try to shake off a lackluster game against Michigan and reestablish his connection star receiver B.J. Cunningham.  Nearly 37% of Cousins’ completions have gone to Cunningham, and on those completions Cunningham is responsible for 47% of Cousins’ passing yardage.  This is a dynamic quarterback-receiver tandem.

What Wisconsin must do to win

wisconsin-michigan-state-preview-point-spread-prediction-kickoff-timeIt sounds obvious, but Wisconsin must do exactly what they have done for 6 straight games – run the ball effectively, hit a few big pass plays, and continue to play mistake-free football.

Wilson will need to react to pressure, since this will be the toughest defense he has faced all season.  If he handles that pressure well and makes some big plays through the air, Michigan State will be forced to drop an extra man in coverage and that will open up wider lanes for Ball and White.  As talented as those two backs are, any extra running room could result in huge plays.  That will also allow them to control the clock, and shorten the game.  For a team that doesn’t make many mistakes, the less possessions in the game, the better.

Defensively, Wisconsin must limit Cunningham.  The loss of starting cornerback Devin Smith in week 2 hasn’t hurt the Badgers yet, but it could against a tough receiver like Cunningham.  They also must be able to stop the rushing attack of Baker and Bell, for the exact reasons they need to have success with Ball and White on their own offense.

What Michigan State must do to win

The Spartans must be able to run with effectiveness early in the game.  If they can, Wisconsin will be forced to cheat toward the run, allowing Cousins, a very accurate passer (65% completion percentage), to hit his receivers for big gains.  If they get stuffed early, setting up long 2nd and 3rd downs, look for Cousins to be forced into bad throws that could end up as turnovers.

wisconsin-michigan-state-preview-point-spread-prediction-kickoff-timeMichigan State must also be able to play with intensity and get after Wilson, even without the dominating presence Gholston brings.  If they allow Wilson to sit back and make throws without being under duress, the game is over.  If they can harass him like they did Robinson (who is not as good a thrower but is a better runner than Wilson), look for the Spartans to have a very good chance of winning this game.

Lastly, Spartan Stadium will need to be a loud, rowdy place for the home team to win.  In college football, perhaps more than any other sport, home field advantage can have a huge effect on the outcome of games.  Against Nebraska, Wisconsin didn’t get rattled because they controlled a double-digit lead for most of the game.  Michigan State will need to keep it close to allow the crowd to have an effect.

Wisconsin-Michigan State Prediction

I expect this game to be very close.  Even though Wisconsin seems to have a decided edge, the home field advantage and the fact that Wisconsin hasn’t faced a defense as good as the Spartans’ yet make me think this will come down to the wire.

I think Wilson will play well.  Ball and White will start slowly, but their style of running tends to make them more effective as the opposing defenses tire.  Michigan State will play better on offense than most expect, but I think they will ultimately come up short.  They have turned the ball over a little too much this year, and I think in the end a turnover will doom them Saturday night.

Wisconsin 27, Michigan State 17.

What do you think?

Who do you think will win the Big Ten Game of the Week?

  • Michigan State Spartans (38%, 38 Votes)
  • Wisconsin Badgers (62%, 63 Votes)

Total Voters: 101

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Wisconsin-Michigan State Game Info

  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Date: Saturday, October 22
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Kickoff Time: 8:00 PM EST
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State TV: ESPN
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Point Spread: Wisconsin -9
  • Wisconsin-Michigan State Over/Under: 48

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Follow me on Twitter @keithmullett

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Image credits: monteeball.com, laketheposts.com, rr.com, espn.com



About Keith Mullett

Keith is an Ohio-based sports and pop culture junkie who began writing for MSF in June 2011. His ramblings about sports, music, movies and books can be further enjoyed by following him on Twitter @keithmullett.

In addition to his work for MSF, Keith operates a blog called Commercial Grade, in which he critiques television commercials from the perspective of the average viewer.

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