Badgers/Spartans Preview: Passing Game Is Key

Who: Michigan State Spartans @ Wisconsin Badgers.

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, ESPN

When: Saturday, September 27, 11 AM CST.

Normally the ladies of ABC’s The View and the (mostly) male anchors and reporters of ESPN (like ABC, owned by Disney) don’t cover too many of the same topics. Oh, if a star athlete is discovered to be dating a woman who has recently placed on a Maxim or FHM “hot” list, then Bob Ley and Whoopi Goldberg might exchange some notes, but such cross-pollination is rare.

The major exception to the rule? Twice a year when TV viewers can find out either through “Hot Topics” or through SportsCenter just who has been selected for the latest incarnation of Dancing with the Stars.

And every time my reaction is the same: Who are these guys?

Many Badger football fans are asking themselves the same thing about their team as Bucky gets set to host Michigan State in the Big Ten opener on Saturday.

Where Bret Bielema once preached running the football and winning the time of possession battle, the Badgers through three non-conference games have proven to be remarkably balanced, piling up 598 yards on the ground and – here’s the surprise – 678 yards through the air.

They’ve also been coming up short in TOP, but as the Miami Dolphins just proved, winning clock doesn’t automatically translate to winning games.

You’d have to go back to 2003 to find a season in which the Badgers did not get off to a 3-0 start, so perfection in the non-conference schedule is nothing new to Wisconsin fans. But what is new is the trepidation many fans feel as the team is just one year removed from a 3-0 start that went south as quickly as the last 30 minutes of Stripes.

So here are the Channel 3000 3 storylines to watch as the Badgers welcome in Michigan State:

1. How good are the Badgers? This is the proverbial elephant in the room. Sure, the Badgers dominated Northern Illinois for three quarters and embarrassed a poorly-undermanned Wofford team, but they also looked awful defensively at times against Fresno State, came frighteningly close to letting the Huskies steal the opener, and were as sloppy as a drunken David Hasselhoff eating a hamburger against the Terriers. If they come out on Saturday like they came out against Wofford, they will lose.

Conversely, Saturday’s game could say a lot about how important it is for teams to test themselves early in the season: Michigan State is 1-2 but is coming off a last-second loss to a highly-touted (well, at least until they lost to Michigan) Notre Dame team. Will they be battle-tested or battle-weary?

2. How good is Scott Tolzien? The Badgers’ quarterback play has been the biggest surprise  — in a good way — of the young 2009 season. Tolzien currently ranks number 2 in the Big Ten in passer rating (161.8) and completion percentage (69.1) and he has quickly established a much better rapport with a group of core receivers (Anderson, Toon, Graham) than  Dustin Sherer ever did (to say nothing of Allan Evridge).

Whereas it may seem that Tolzien should be in for his first real test, he gets to face a team that so far has proven to be horrible at defending the pass.

Michigan State has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a higher percentage of passes than any team in the Big Ten. They’ve also allowed the most passing touchdowns of any team in the Big Ten and they are second to last in passing yards allowed. The Spartans defense is much stronger against the run, so the game may be put in Tolzien’s hands.

The last two meetings between Michigan State and Wisconsin have been ridiculously close — if Tolzien needs to make a play to win the Badgers the game and he does it, his stock will rise considerably.

3. How good is the Badgers secondary? Remember that statistic about Tolzien being second in the Big Ten in major passing categories? Who’s above him? Michigan State’s sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The stats indicate that Wisconsin is pretty average defensively. But surely Badger fans recall wanting to claw their eyes out watching how terrible the Wisconsin secondary looked against Fresno State. Fortunately, the Badgers made some halftime adjustments in that game and looked much better in the second half. And against Wofford, their defensive backfield was not even challenged.

Cousins and the Spartans will give the Badger secondary not only its biggest test so far but perhaps its biggest test of the season. How they respond will go a long way in determining whether Wisconsin can go to 4-0.


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