Spartans, Badgers looking for advantage against similar opponent
Junior safety Trenton Robinson, senior cornerback Chris L. Rucker and junior quarterback Kirk Cousins talk about the overall importance of conference play, the value of taking each week game-by-game, and their thoughts about football head coach Mark Dantonio returning to the press box.
When No. 24 MSU and No. 11 Wisconsin face off Saturday at Spartan Stadium (3:30, ABC), there won’t be any secrets as to what the other team is going to do to win.
In fact, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said Saturday’s game could be a case of two teams trying to beat each other at their own games.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Dantonio said. “They’ve run the ball very effectively; we have as well. Their passer is very good in terms of completion percentage; ours is as well. It’ll be interesting.”
Statistically, the Spartans and Badgers have been eerily similar in the first four games of 2010.
Both teams have relied on dominant rushing attacks, averaging more than 230 yards per game while also holding opponents to an average of less than 100 yards rushing.
Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien and MSU junior quarterback Kirk Cousins each have had their ups and downs but always have done enough to win, while both defenses also have faced some challenges.
Even the schedules have been similar, as the Badgers and Spartans each have had three easy wins along with one down-to-the-wire victory.
“I used to think in this league it was probably just us and Iowa that were so similar,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said at his weekly press conference. “But now, I definitely throw Michigan State in, too.”
Saturday’s matchup between two smashmouth teams arguably will be the marquee game in the first week of Big Ten play. And as MSU prepares for Wisconsin, the Spartans said this week marks a whole new beginning for the team.
“The season really begins when the Big Ten schedule starts,” senior cornerback Chris L. Rucker said. “That’s really when you’re going to get to see what kind of team you have and how far we’re going to go.”
MSU enters conference play at 4-0 for the first time since 2007 — Dantonio’s first year in charge in East Lansing.
And although Cousins is happy with being undefeated, he said the last four games will mean nothing for the rest of the season.
“To be 4-0 is fine; it’s right where we wanted to be,” Cousins said. “But what we speak about here is Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls. You don’t get those by winning in the nonconference.”
The first step toward a conference championship and Rose Bowl appearance will not be easy, as the Badgers come into the game as one of the few teams believed to be capable of knocking off five-time defending Big Ten champion Ohio State.
Led by running back John Clay, Wisconsin is one of three conference teams with more rushing yards per game (257.5) than the Spartans (231.5).
Clay, who ranks one spot ahead of MSU sophomore running back Edwin Baker among Big Ten rushers with 125.2 yards per game, will be running behind a mammoth offensive line that has no player weighing less than 313 pounds.
“They’re a really good team with a good offensive line and a great running back,” Spartans’ senior linebacker Greg Jones said. “I have a lot of respect for their running backs and offensive line.”
The matchup between Clay and Jones has been highly publicized all week. Although Jones likely will be in on a lot of plays involving Clay, he said there is only one way to stop the 248-pound bruiser.
“With a lot of people,” Jones said. “Seriously, it’s going to take everyone one of us getting to the ball.”
While MSU undoubtedly will have its hands full with Clay, the Badgers’ passing attack will receive an extra boost this week as well. Wide receivers Nick Toon (turf toe) and David Gilreath (concussion), who have missed the last two and three weeks, respectively, return Saturday, giving Tolzien two of his favorite options back.
Rucker, who likely will line up across from Gilreath or Toon, said the preparation throughout the week is key in stopping a duo such as Wisconsin’s.
“You have to play your technique,” Rucker said. “But you have to watch film, know what they do and their tendencies and stuff, too.”
Defensively, Wisconsin is without last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year linebacker Chris Borland, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in week one.
However, the Badgers best playmaker on defense — defensive back Jay Valai — will be 100 percent healthy according to Bielema and ready to stop Cousins and the Spartans’ aerial assault.
“He’s clearly the leader in their secondary,” Cousins said of Valai. “We’re going to know where he is on every play and expect a great game from him.”
Although Wisconsin will have the advantage of having one of the best defensive backs in the conference and returning two of its top receivers, the Badgers are traveling to a stadium where they have not fared well in the past.
Losing the last two games played at East Lansing, Bielema said he is not looking forward to facing the Spartans’ rowdy fans.
“It’s going to be the first time on the road in a very hostile environment,” Bielema said.
“And Michigan State’s crowd will be all lathered up at a (3:30) game.”
Dantonio on the other hand, who will be coaching from the coaches’ box after suffering a heart attack Sept. 19, said he can’t wait to be back in Spartan Stadium on game day against a quality opponent.
“Our games with Wisconsin have always been very, very good games, and they’ll continue to be exciting,” Dantonio said. “It’ll be a great atmosphere out here this weekend.”