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'We're upset': MSU's run defense gets shot at redemption against Wisconsin

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) has rushed for 745 yards and 12 scores in five games this season.

East Lansing — As Michigan State walked off the field in Columbus last Saturday, it was hard to find a player from the defense that was anywhere close to a good mood.

The Spartans had just allowed 323 rushing yards in a 34-10 loss as the Buckeyes piled up more than 500 total yards and, outside of the first quarter, had their way with a defense that was the best in the nation against the run last season and entered last week’s matchup in the top 10 this season.

By the time the Spartans watched the film of the dismantling, the mood worsened.

“They're sick. They're sick, I'm sick,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “That's not what we do and we're upset about it. There’s probably a little bit to be said that people are trying to do too much, not doing what we call zeroing ourselves out where we're hitting guys right down the middle so we can make both plays. You know, your job is not to make both plays, your job is to be on this edge and make this play.

“So there's a little bit of that to be said, but yeah, we're upset.”

Being upset is one thing. Figuring out how to correct things is another.

And for Michigan State (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) there’s no time to wallow in any sort of self-pity. That’s because the Spartans hit the road this week to take on No. 8 Wisconsin, a team that ranks 10th in the nation in rushing offense at 254 yards a game while featuring running back Jonathan Taylor, who is second in the nation in rushing yards per game at 149.

A daunting task, to be sure, but one the Spartans relish.

“This is exactly what we talked about,” Tressel said. “You want to have a chance to redeem yourself after this past week. What more could you ask for then to go against Wisconsin, who’s gonna line up and try to hit you in the mouth?”

Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0) routinely punches people in the mouth, featuring Taylor running behind what is consistently one of the best offensive lines in the nation.

Now a junior, Taylor has run for 4,916 yards in 32 career games and has gained 100 or more yards in 27 of those games. By the end of his sophomore season, Taylor had run for 4,171 yards, most in the first two seasons by any college player in history.

“He's really good,” Tressel said. “He's obviously a Heisman leading candidate, and he's fast. So when he gets in the open, he can finish. Now (Ohio State’s J.K.) Dobbins is pretty good, too, so I'm not saying they're exactly the same type of back. But we played against the (Saquon) Barkleys, who if they get a crease, they're gone, too. He's really good, as good as we’ve seen, but we’ve faced guys similar.”

Added fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams: “He’s a special type of back. We played a lot of good ones, and he’s another.”

Sure, the Spartans have faced similar. Tressel noted Dobbins, who went for 172 yards last week and Barkley, the former Penn State back who failed to find much room against the Spartans. So, the track record has seen top runners vary in their success.

This will be the first time Michigan State has faced Taylor — the teams last played in 2016 when Taylor was a senior in high school. And the Badgers’ offensive line, as good as it has been, featured just one returning starter at the beginning of the season — center Tyler Biadasz, who was first-team All-Big Ten in 2018.

“They're huge dudes always,” Tressel said. “That's Wisconsin, they're huge guys. Secondly, their group takes extreme pride in what they do, and that's a pretty neat deal when your whole offense is sort of made through the offensive line, and everybody knows it. They're like the feature back. I mean, no offensive lines are like the feature back and you can't say that about most places. So they take great pride in what they do, and they're pretty good.”

What they do is fairly straightforward. As Tressel said, the Badgers will line up and try to hit you in the mouth.

What that means is there are very few gimmicks.

“What you get from Wisconsin is a multitude of gap schemes where they are pulling linemen, sort of counter OT, both guard and tackle pulling,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “A lot more different running-type plays from a variety of formations and personnel groupings. …There's variations of what they do and they do it very well.”

And that means Michigan State will need to remain disciplined, something that has been the defense’s calling card but something it was not last week at Ohio State.

Gaps were not filled — specifically on a 67-yard touchdown run by Dobbins — while poor angles were taken at times and at others, defenders focused more on going for the ball than securing the tackle.

That must all get fixed by Saturday when the Badgers are going to come right at the Spartans.

“They’re gonna do exactly what we see on tape,” Tressel said. “It's a different style of offense than we’ve played (so far). Our linebackers need to fill like they haven't filled all year. They need to plan on taking out multiple bodies when you start pulling people. All those plays look great on the blackboard. So, we’ve got to take out extra bodies and that’s a little bit different, but they are who they are. That's what we're preparing for. That's what we'll see.”

Michigan State at Wisconsin

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

TV/radio: BTN/760

Records: Michigan State 4-2, 2-1 Big Ten; No. 8 Wisconsin 5-0, 2-0

Line: Wisconsin by 10


Twitter: @mattcharboneau