Badgers/Spartans Preview: Beating The East Lansing Blues

Let the games begin.

And no, that’s not a reference to Sunday’s Packers/Vikings tilt, another likely blowout Packers victory that on the surface has about as much potential drama and intrigue as a typical episode of Calliou.

[Speaking of the Vikings, there’s an interesting factoid that Sunday’s game, featuring rookie QB Christian Ponder making his starting debut, is the fourth Packers/Vikings matchup in just the last eleven seasons in which the Vikings have trotted out a quarterback making his first start for the team.

The roster moves make sense: If the Vikings were to win (as they almost did with Spergon Wynn in 2001), they could crow all the more that they beat the vaunted Packers with a rookie QB. If they were to lose – as they have with the three previous rookies – they can say, “Big deal. We had a quarterback playing his first game! Of course we were going to lose!” Anyway, Packers by three touchdowns at least.]

And sadly, it’s also not a reference to the Brewers, who nevertheless had a tremendous season before being knocked out of the postseason last Sunday by the hated St. Louis Cardinals. But we’re going to be positive here and not point any fingers for the Brew Crew getting so viciously tapped. (Shaun Marcum and Rickie Weeks, you can thank us later.)

Nope, this is about the No. 4-ranked Wisconsin football Badgers, who are about to play their first real road game of the season Saturday night against the No. 15-ranked Spartans of Michigan State.

It’s should be noted that, while the Badgers have had an easy schedule up to now, they have passed one challenge with flying colors, smothering the Nebraska Cornhuskers 48-17 three weeks ago.

But that was at home. Not in East Lansing.

Ah, East Lansing. What is it about a trip to the home of the Spartans that tends to foul a Badgers season the way that Shaun Marcum’s trips to the mound tend to foul a Brewers postseason? (Oops, did we say no pointing fingers?)

Just last season, the Spartans handed the visiting Badgers their only regular season loss. Three years ago, the Badgers completely unraveled at Spartan Stadium as MSU handed them their fifth loss in six games. And in 2004, the No. 4-ranked Badgers (sound familiar?) came home humbled after getting pounded by Michigan State to the tune of 49-14.

In fact, you’d have to go back all the way to 2002 – you know, back when a guy named Brian Dunkleman co-hosted American Idol – to find the last time the Badgers defeated the Spartans in East Lansing.

But this year is different, right? The Badgers are playing even better now than they were last year during their run to the Rose Bowl, right?

Well, you ain’t wrong. Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines of the game:

1. Unstoppable force versus immovable object. It’s the age-old question: Nu Shooz or T’Pau? Oops, rather: What wins games: offense or defense? The Spartans are second in the county in total defense, having shut down Ohio State and, more impressively, the previously high-flying Michigan Wolverines. Meanwhile, the Badgers are first in scoring offense.

Thing is, the Badgers defense is pretty good, too, actually allowing fewer points per game than the Spartans (9.7 to 10.8), and playing about three shutdown quarters against a very good Nebraska offense. And the Spartans, despite their impressive work against Michigan QB Denard Robinson, have not faced a multifaceted offense as complete as the Badgers possess. In this case at least, the force seems more unstoppable than the object seems immovable.

2. Sparring Spartans Shorthanded. One of the reasons the Spartans may be less immovable Saturday night is because the Big Ten has suspended Michigan State defensive end William Gholston for a week due to rampant stupidity. Well, the conference doesn’t phrase it that way, instead citing Gholston’s decision to punch a Wolverine player during last week’s game.

Gholston, although apparently not very bright, is a bright spot on the Spartans’ defense, notching 20 tackles so far this season with seven tackles for a loss. The Badgers didn’t need the help, but they will likely take advantage of it.

3. Can Spartans Keep Up? In their only loss of the season, a 31-13 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, the Spartans got behind early and were forced to play catch-up all afternoon; as a result, MSU gained only a paltry 29 yards rushing and senior QB Kirk Cousins put up a whopping 53 pass attempts, more than twice the 24 throws he has averaged per game the rest of the season.

In short, the Spartans don’t have a high-flying offense. If the Badgers can get out to an early lead, not only can they take the crowd out of the game, but they will force MSU into a style of football they don’t want to play. Conversely, Wisconsin’s offense seems built for pretty much any style.

Given the recent series between these teams, it seems dangerous to pick against Michigan State at home.

But the Badgers need to give people a reason to pick against them, and so far, they haven’t.

Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 13.


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