There was a time when Wisconsin and Michigan State represented a budding rivalry in the Big Ten.
From the time Mark Dantonio took over in 2007, the Spartans and Badgers were engaged in a tightly contested series that included a meeting in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.
Along for the ride in those days was Paul Chryst, the current Wisconsin head coach. From 2006-11, Chryst was Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator, and once Dantonio arrived, he was up close and personal for a six-game run between the teams that finished with each winning three with every game decided by 10 points or less. In fact, outside of Michigan State’s 34-24 win in 2010, the margin was within one score.
“You knew you were in for a heck of a ballgame,” Chryst said of facing Michigan State. “Obviously I have a ton of respect for Coach (Mark) Dantonio, and not just what he’s done program-wise, but how they play football. You knew it would be a physical game, you knew you had to be tough in every phase.
“We played a lot of games when I was the offensive coordinator and looking at their defense, but you knew it from being around the game. Their offense and defense were both physical, and you had to earn everything you got.”
As No. 8 Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) prepares to host Michigan State (4-2, 2-1) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, the rivalry has waned thanks to Big Ten scheduling. After Michigan State won in overtime in Madison in 2012, the teams didn’t play again until Wisconsin’s 30-6 win in East Lansing in 2016.
This week’s matchup is the first since then, and it appears the teams are on far different paths. The Spartans are coming off a one-sided loss at Ohio State, while the Badgers are rolling behind running back Jonathan Taylor and a defense that is allowing less than six points a game.
Still, Chryst isn’t allowing his team to rest on its laurels.
“The beauty of sports is you have the opportunity to get tested and challenged every week,” he said. “Only at the end can you write the narrative. You can’t take away what they’ve done, that’s what’s awesome about sports. You get the chance to go out and try and do it again. Each week you’re tested differently and certainly this week we’ll all be tested. It’s a challenge, and I think that’s why when good things do happen you appreciate it because you know it’s not a guarantee.”
Taylor lead the Big Ten with 149 rushing yards per game and is coming off the win over Kent State when he ran for 186 yards and four touchdowns while adding a receiving touchdown. It will certainly test the Michigan State defense, one that has been among the best at stopping the run, but allowed 323 yards last week at Ohio State.
Regardless, the Badgers don’t plan on changing a thing.
“It doesn't matter who our opponent is,” offensive lineman Jason Erdmann said. “We're going to line up the same way against everybody and we're going to run what we run.”
While the Badgers have been busy running over opponents, they also aren’t allowing teams to move the ball or find the end zone.
Through five games, they’re ranked first in the Big Ten in scoring defense (5.8 points per game), total defense (178.6 yards per game) and rushing defense (47.6 yards per game).
“There has been a good plan and a plan that’s favorable to our guys,” Chryst said of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s system. “They believe in it, and they know it which allows you to cut it loose.
“Right now we have a group with a lot of guys contributing to it and a couple of guys playing at a real high level. There’s good senior leadership and some other guys that have played a lot football. But (this week) we know we’re gonna be tested a whole lot more, and we’ve got to rise up to that.”