The No. 24 MSU football team will prepare for a physical affair Saturday when No. 11 Wisconsin comes to Spartan Stadium to face MSU (3:30 p.m., ABC).
The two teams mirror each other in terms of rushing attack and solid quarterback play, as the Badgers enter having gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground and have three feature running backs.
The No. 11 Badgers and No. 24 Spartans have identical 4-0 records and aspirations of finishing near the top of the conference, but would like to take the next step and win the Big Ten.
Here are four matchups to watch during Saturday’s game.
Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien vs. MSU secondary
The Spartans’ pass defense has been tested in its first games, as it gave up an average of 252.5 yards per game through the air, and again will be tested by an underrated Badgers’ passing offense.
Tolzien threw for 243 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Badgers to a 38-30 win against MSU last year, and comes in with a completion percentage
Tight end Lance Kendricks leads the Badgers’ receivers with 17 catches for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and the Badgers have an experienced group behind him.
The fact that Wisconsin features its tight ends means MSU will need to devise a scheme of putting a linebacker or defensive back to cover those players.
The Spartans’ pass defense has given up a lot of yardage on short plays, but has not allowed many big plays this year.
However, the Spartans will be in for a challenge Saturday, and will try to model their late-game effort two weeks ago against Notre Dame.
MSU QB Kirk Cousins vs. Wisconsin secondary
Cousins probably played his best game of the season last week against Northern Colorado — throwing for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
He has one of the best receiving groups in the country, led by the playmaking ability of junior wide receiver Keshawn Martin, and a good group of tight ends that will allow the Spartans to disguise who they’re throwing to.
Cousins threw for 201 yards last season against the Badgers, and teamed with junior wide receiver Keith Nichol to total 396 passing yards and four touchdowns.
The Wisconsin pass defense is sharper this season and will challenge the Spartans as safety Jay Valai leads an experienced unit.
If Cousins has a good game, the Spartans have an advantage in this category.
Wisconsin offensive line vs. MSU front seven
The Badgers’ rushing game has flat out dominated its competition thus far.
Wisconsin averages 257.5 rushing yards per game, which is ninth in the country, and has an offensive line that was ranked No. 1 in the country by some preseason
Running back John Clay leads the tailbacks with 501 yards on the ground, and features size and speed, and several other players have stepped up in the running game. Reserves James White and Montee Ball have collected 467 yards between them.
The MSU rush defense has allowed only 341 yards on the ground in a superb effort in its first four games, but has faced mostly pass-first opponents.
If MSU can limit the Badgers to short gains, it would be a huge advantage for the Spartans, but Wisconsin’s running game might be the most difficult to stop in the Big Ten.
MSU offensive line vs. Wisconsin front seven
The Spartans’ offensive line has impressed this season, and the team features a similar north-south running game as the Badgers, ranking 16th in the country in yards per game.
The Spartans have carried for 926 yards in the first four games and have found offensive balance behind elusive sophomore Edwin Baker and battering freshman Le’Veon Bell, who have combined for 845 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
Wisconsin’s run defense averages 94.5 yards per game given up on the ground, which is about where the Spartans’ rush defense is this season.
The Badgers’ defensive line is led by defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who leads the team in tackles for loss with 4.5.
The Spartans allowed two sacks against Northern Colorado, but have been good in that department this season.