Defense steps up, shuts down Wisconsin running, passing game in Big Ten victory
After having its ability questioned for the majority of the season, the MSU defense stepped up in a big way Saturday, shutting down then-No. 11 Wisconsin in a 34-24 victory.
The MSU defense swarmed to the football at key moments and provided a big lift throughout the game.
The now-No. 17 Spartans held Wisconsin to 3-for-11 on third-down conversions, showing improvement in an area that’s been difficult for them. MSU also held the Badgers to two first downs or fewer on several possessions.
Wisconsin failed to find a rhythm on offense, as MSU equaled all of Wisconsin’s best measures on the ground and in getting pressure on the quarterback.
“You can’t really play against a team that can do both (run and pass),” senior linebacker Greg Jones said. “You either have to stop the run or stop the pass. We try to do both.”
MSU corralled Wisconsin running back John Clay to start the game, and as Wisconsin began to throw the ball, the Spartans’ cornerbacks rose to the challenge and played probably their best game of the season.
Wisconsin only had 127 yards passing for the game, which is a considerable drop-off from the 272 yards it put up last week in a 70-3 victory against Austin Peay and a top-flight effort from a secondary unit that allowed a Big Ten-worst 267.6 yards per game last year.
The Badgers’ physical rushing attack couldn’t account for extra yardage, as the Spartans allowed the Badgers 165 yards on the ground.
The Badgers’ 292 total offensive yards were well below their season average and a testament to a Spartan defense that was criticized for occasional letdowns last year.
“I think it was the time that everyone came together,” senior linebacker Jon Misch said. “We came to play out there and got our goals out there.”
Clay entered Saturday’s game having rushed for 100-plus yards and having scored a touchdown in 10 straight games.
Both streaks came to an end Saturday.
MSU hung in against Wisconsin’s big offensive line and limited the 250-plus-pound back to 80 yards on 17 carries.
The Badgers earned two touchdowns on the ground as running back James White scored twice, but the Badgers had very few big plays in the game.
“Third downs, we’ve had a problem this year up to now,” senior linebacker Eric Gordon said. “I thought we did a great job, we call it our ‘money down.’ We just focused down and made plays and made things happen.”
Although head coach Mark Dantonio watched the game from the hospital Saturday, his influence was noticeable in the way the Spartans attempted three fourth-down conversions. Dantonio was admitted to the hospital Thursday after a blood clot was discovered in his leg, but he stayed in contact with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi during the game.
“I think (Dantonio) has taught us that if we don’t get a verbal cue from him we are going to go to play for the win,” offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. “That was kind of the mindset in terms of those calls at those times.”
The Spartans converted on two of three fourth-down attempts, watching freshman running back Le’Veon Bell rush for 23 yards on a fourth-and-one at the Wisconsin 48-yard line and time winding down in the first half.
In the second half, Wisconsin made a goal line stand midway through the third quarter, tackling Bell for no gain on fourth-and-goal. But MSU responded with junior quarterback Kirk Cousins’ one-yard pass to junior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal with less than three minutes left in the game to put MSU ahead 34-24.
“It was a play that we have had in for a while, and it has been good in practice,” Cousins said of the last fourth-down play. “Fortunately it worked, and we called it at the right time.”
In a game billed on tough battles in the trenches, junior wide receiver Keshawn Martin made two plays on special teams that stood out Saturday.
Early in the second quarter, he fielded a punt deep inside MSU territory and ran to the sideline. Seeing no room available, Martin reversed field and received solid blocking from his teammates to pick up some yardage and reach the MSU 30. As he was reaching the sidelines, his facemask was grabbed by a Wisconsin player, resulting in a 15-yard penalty and a major change in field position thanks to Martin’s effort.
Later in the quarter, he scooped up a Wisconsin punt at the MSU 26-yard line and ran through the middle before outrunning the Wisconsin punt coverage on a 74-yard touchdown. The touchdown was MSU’s first punt return for a score since Ziehl Kavanaght did it against Northwestern in 2002.
Martin finished the game with 190 all-purpose yards.
“They say special teams is going to win this game for us, and I feel that the return I had was a big momentum-changer,” Martin said.