B.J. Cunningham hauls in a pass in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
East Lansing -- When Kirk Cousins was a sophomore last season, his first as Michigan State's starting quarterback, he always had a go-to guy, a safety valve when he needed the big completion.
That player, Blair White, was busy catching his first NFL touchdown last week in the Colts' victory over the Broncos.
Without White on campus, Cousins has had to find a new guy. He has plenty of options, including receivers Mark Dell, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, as well as tight ends Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum.
But after four games, there's little doubt as to who Cousins looks for now when he needs that big pass, the one to keep a drive going or get the Spartans out of a big hole: junior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.
"He knows what I do," said Cunningham, who leads the Spartans with 14 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns. "When I lineup, I can almost tell who the ball is going to. If it's coming to me or going to somebody else, you can just tell from playing with your quarterback every day. It's a great feeling to have."
Cunningham already has made his share of big catches this season, the biggest being his 24-yard touchdown that tied the game in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.
But the most telling fact of Cunningham's importance to Cousins is how often they connect to produce a first down. Of the 14 grabs Cunningham has made, 10 have resulted in a first down. Against Notre Dame alone, six of his seven receptions resulted in first downs.
"Kirk was my scout-team quarterback," said 6-foot-2, 220-pound Cunningham. "Really, who he looks to is whatever play is called, he looks to his first read. If I happen to be that first read, he has trust in me to make the play.
"Kirk has a good arm and whenever he's looking for me downfield he feels like I'm going to catch ball and I'm going to go get it for him. He trusts me and I trust him."
It was a slow start to the season for not only Cunningham, but the passing game as a whole.
Cunningham had just one catch in the opening victory over Western Michigan and two against Florida Atlantic, although one did result in a touchdown.
But with the Big Ten season beginning against Wisconsin on Saturday, Cunningham is confident the passing attack is coming together.
"We're definitely starting to gel," he said. "We've just had to work on executing more and getting better each week."
Versatility pays off
Senior linebacker Jon Misch always seems to be around. He has only started five games in his career, but his ability to play any linebacker position makes him as valuable as any player on defense.
That has been evident the past two weeks. Against Notre Dame, he filled in for outside linebacker Eric Gordon, who went out with an injury in the first quarter. Last week against Northern Colorado, he started at STAR linebacker, his first start of the season.
He's happy to be on the field, but practice has become a bit complicated. He's splitting time with sophomore Chris Norman at nickelback, but must also stay current on the other linebacker spots.
"The coaches have put it on us," Misch said of him and Norman getting equal time in practice. "Not only am I splitting reps with Norman, I have to get SAM reps so I'm ready if things happen there."
But if anyone can do it, the coaching staff if confident Misch is the guy.
"The thing about Jon is, you know he's going to be ready," linebackers coach Mike Tressel said after the Notre Dame game. "You know he's going to know what to do. We expected he'd play well and he did a good job."
Let's get it started
Here's how Michigan State has fared against Wisconsin in Big Ten openers:
Sept. 30, 1961 -- Michigan State, 20-0, at Madison
Oct. 7, 1967 -- Michigan State, 35-7, at East Lansing
Oct. 5, 1968 -- Michigan State, 39-0, at Madison
Oct. 1, 1994 -- Michigan State, 29-10, at East Lansing*
Sept. 29, 2007 -- Wisconsin, 37-34, at Madison
Sept. 26, 2009 -- Wisconsin, 38-30, at Madison
*Win forfeited as part of MSU's self-imposed sanctions in 1996.
By the numbers
1968 -- The last year, before 20101, that the Spartans started a season with four games of 200 yards or more rushing.
85.2 -- Rushing yards allowed per game by the MSU defense. It ranks third in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation.
9 -- Wins Wisconsin has in its last 13 games against Michigan State. The Spartans lead the all-time series, 27-21.
He said it
"Just seeing Coach D walking around practice makes me more comfortable going into Big Ten games." -- Le'Veon Bell, freshman running back on having head coach Mark Dantonio back at practice this week.
Wisconsin at Michigan State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: ABC/WJR 760
Records: No. 11 Wisconsin 4-0, No. 24 Michigan State 4-0
Series: Michigan State leads 27-21 (Wisconsin 38-30 in 2009)
Line: Wisconsin by 1 1/2