East Lansing – Points spreads may indicate one thing and the experts might say another, but if history is any sort of guide, don’t expect Michigan State’s matchup Saturday with Wisconsin to be over by halftime.
A close game at the half would, alone, be a break from the norm this season for the No. 8-ranked Badgers, who have led after the first 30 minutes by a combined score of 135-3 this season through five games.
It’s an impressive set of numbers, thanks in part to a punishing running attack led by junior Jonathan Taylor. But quietly, the Badgers also have the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation and are allowing 5.8 points a game.
“I think they operate and you're not sitting there saying, ‘OK, here is this particular guy and he's the only guy they have,’” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said of the Wisconsin defense. “I think they operate very well together. They are very well tied together.
“You can tell it's team defense. They have a lot of guys making a lot of plays and they are bringing people from every direction at times.”
The result, obviously, has been blowout wins nearly every week, a 24-15 victory over Northwestern the only game that was still in question in the fourth quarter.
However, as we mentioned, history says that when Wisconsin and Michigan State get together, things rarely are decided until the final few possessions. Since Mark Dantonio took over in 2007, only one meeting with the Badgers has been decided by more than 10 points. And, in fact, of the eight games between the Badgers and Spartans, six have been decided by no more than one score.
“Tight games. Physical games,” Dantonio said. “There's been last-second kicks and last-second wins. The Hail Mary pass. There's been the Rocket pass. A lot of close games and highly contested.
“So there's been a lot of that going back and forth. They have got great tradition there. … “Always had great games with Wisconsin.”
Dantonio’s right – the games have almost always been tight. When he took his Michigan State team to Madison in 2007, it lost, 37-34, to the ninth-ranked Badgers. The next season in East Lansing, the Spartans won on a last-second Brett Swenson field goal. Wisconsin earned the 38-30 victory at home in 2009 while Michigan State earned a 34-24 win at home in 2010 on the way to a share of the Big Ten title.
The 2011 season proved to be the height of the rivalry with Michigan State winning, 37-31, on the “Rocket” play. Wide receiver Keith Nichol pulled in deflected Hail Mary pass then powered over the goal line on the game’s final play to give Michigan State the win.
But Wisconsin avenged that loss in the inaugural Big Ten championship game, beating Michigan State, 42-39, in a thriller that went down to the final minute. Michigan State rebounded with an overtime win on the road in 2012.
Since that game the series has been sporadic as Wisconsin rolled to a 30-6 win in 2016 leading to this season’s matchup.
“You knew you were in for a heck of a ball game,” said Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, who was the Badgers offensive coordinator from 2005-11. “Obviously a ton of respect for Coach Dantonio and not just what he has done program-wise but how they play football. You knew it was going to be a physical game. You knew you had to be tough. … You had to earn everything you got.”
It won’t be any different this season, even as the teams appear to be heading in different directions.
Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) is cruising, looking to win the West, get back to the conference championship game and perhaps a shot at the College Football Playoff.
Michigan State (4-2, 2-1) is reeling after last week’s loss at Ohio State and is desperately looking to turn things around with what would be a significant upset. To pull it off, the Spartans’ offense will have to make big strides, entering the game ranking 75th in the nation in scoring (27.8 points per game) and 81st in total offense (392.2 yards per game).
They’ll have to do it against a defense that is allowing only 5.8 points and 178.6 yards a game, both of which rank first in the country.
“Very sound,” Michigan State offensive coordinator Brad Salem said of the Badgers. “It’s a simple statement. They’re a special defense. They're good at what they do. They understand their fits, play really hard and it's historic of what we've seen from them. They've done a great job as far as attacking the offense, being physical at the point of attack and there just solid all around.”
It’s not all straight forward, though, according to Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke.
“They don't want you knowing what they do,” Lewerke said, “and they'll bring pressures where they have guys line up on one side and bring the pressure from the other side, stuff like that. So they try and keep you guessing.”
Linebacker Zack Baun is among the Badgers’ defensive standouts. He averages 1.9 tackles for loss per game, which is second best in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation.
Lewerke has been solid this season but has been plagued by receivers dropping passes while playing in front of a depleted offensive line.
Still, the Spartans feel like they’re headed in the right direction.
“(Ohio State) is the No. 2 team in the country and we moved down there and had our chances,” Salem said. “We had a chance at a touchdown on that one series and went to a field goal and the other series you get down to the inside the 10. So, we’re able to move the football we just didn't finish. We had opportunities out there and you just can't afford to miss anything against a team like that.”
Wisconsin is the same type of team, and if the Spartans expect to be in another tight one, they’ll need to start finishing.
“We're looking forward to the challenge and it should be a great football game,” Dantonio said. “We'll be ready to play.”
Michigan State at Wisconsin
► Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
► TV/radio: Big Ten Network/760 AM
► Records: Michigan State 4-2, 2-1 Big Ten; No. 8 Wisconsin 5-0, 2-0
► Line: Wisconsin by 10