Spartans Best the Badgers at Their own Game, Open the Big Ten Season 34-24 Over Wisconsin

Jonathan Schopp

The Spartans took it to the Badgers and beat them at their own game.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.
The Spartans took it to the Badgers and beat them at their own game. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

The Spartans sat up 3 points, facing a 4th down decision on the Wisconsin 1 yard line, with 3:10 to go. 3 more points wouldn’t have done much to seal a victory. If anything, it could’ve just pointed out to Wisconsin just how open the door to victory still was. There didn’t seem much question as to what the Spartans wanted to do. They played to win with their Offense, a boldness by design.

MSU had to have another TD, and they accepted that fact as a team. After driving the Badgers down for more than 7 minutes and chewing up more than 80 yards, MSU knew they couldn’t walk away too confident with anything less than "6." With a fine touch pass, on a well designed play-action from Rs.-Jr. Kirk Cousins to Rs.-Jr. B.J. Cunningham, the Spartans had the game in hand, and a play that built off the momentum of “Little Giants.” Those combined impact of those two plays have now sent Spartan Football into territories uncharted since 1999.

MSU made the right call going for it on 4th and Goal, no matter what the outcome would’ve been. For a team that is clearly built to run from the front, Wisconsin was firmly on their heels, no matter how the 4th down ultimately played out. Had State come up short, Wisconsin would’ve had about 65 yards to go, just for a shot at the tie. And in case you hadn’t noticed earlier on, Wisconsin has a couple Special Teams issues to consider.

In a day that started with the surprising news that Mark Dantonio would not be on hand to lead Spartan Football, it didn’t take long to gauge the Spartans’ emotional response. In what was a wild and memorable 1st Half, Coach D’s now healthy heart got an early chance to prove just how strong it was. It was a half that included turnovers, special teams’ touchdowns, helmets flying off, and a myriad of wild and exciting plays. Just how wild was it? The Spartans turned the ball over 3 times, to a Top 10 team, and somehow led by 10 points at Half. It was as wild a 1st half as we’ve seen in the Dantonio era, and he wasn’t even there to see it live!

On a firming Fall’s afternoon, with a chill and dampness that East Lansing has become somewhat known for, big time hitting also arrived on the scene. It was a tough day to play in some ways, as the wind and wet air seemed to contribute to a slippery situation which fueled penalties and drops that appeared to be a little uncharacteristic.

The Spartans came out, and “played up,” while the Badgers, at least initially, came out and “played down.” Wisconsin seemed to beat itself and stumble backwards throughout much of the day, and were never really able to get into their traditional groove. The Spartans, on the other hand, came to play and stayed that way for all 60 minutes. They were noticeably sharper and faster with the mind than they had been in prior weeks. They were clearly inspired, unlike the majority of the ND game, and lifted up by a relatively raucous Spartan Stadium crowd.

As much as anything Saturday, Wisconsin was a test of the MSU lines. The Offensive Line looked outstanding in the early season games as the Spartans ran up 200 yards on each of their first four opponents. The Defensive Line had looked very solid as well against the run, but essentially unable to affect the opposing Quarterback with any force or consistency.  Both lines were tested at a BCS competition level not seen by MSU since the Iowa game late last year. Today, the bottom line was that the lines did enough to beat the Wisconsin 34-24. That says enough.

As we discussed early last week on Spartan Nation Radio, the Spartans had to come out offensively and create space for their balanced attack to flourish. Had they become too predictable and too run reliant, Wisconsin could’ve cut them off early and made it very difficult to move the ball. To the Coaching Staff’s credit, they showed significant maturity today in taking what the Badgers gave them early through the air, to open the Wisconsin Defense up for a heavy mix of run and pass. Sometimes you have to “pass to run,” and today the Spartan staff finally put that theory to work a bit. Of the Spartans 444 Offensive yards for the day, 269 came by air, 175 hard earned yards came by ground. That is very good balance against a Wisconsin caliber opponent.

3rd downs were ultimately going to be a major key. Anytime you get into conference play and teams know each other so well, it’s practically cliché to point that statistic out. Yet today, MSU dominated 3rd downs going 9/18, against Wisconsin’s stale 3/11. 3/11 is not going to win many games against a better Big Ten opponent. 9/18 probably will win it's fair share. As of today, MSU is one of the better Big Ten teams.

We’ve also discussed, way back before the season even began, just how important it would be to stay ahead of the “built to run from the front” Badgers. As the 4th Quarter began, MSU held the lead at 10 points, 27-17, just as they had at Half Time. The Spartan Nation knew the Badgers wouldn’t go down easily in the 4th without a serious fight, and Wisconsin cut the Spartan lead back to 3 with an 11 play, 70 yard drive that left the game clock standing with 10:53 to go.

To play winning football in the Big Ten games that matter most, you almost always have to play your best in the 4th Quarter of each game. The Spartans played their best in the 4th Quarter today, when it mattered most. After driving for 83 yards late in the final period to get all the way to the Wisconsin 1, MSU would not settle for anything less than their best “4th and win” effort. The result was yet another 4th down “brass” call, to make an early season’s matching pair.

What an exciting game, for all 60 minutes. What a way to open the Big Ten season. And what a week ahead now as the Spartan Nation heads into an undefeated clash with their sibling Michigan Wolverines.

The Spartans’ Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The Spartans ran up 34 points on a first tier Big Ten opponent. That’s pretty bold. We could break down each position, but that would take far too much of your time right now. So with respect to the pass catchers today in Green, who more than did their part to get the "W", we’ll focus mostly on the “middle” of the now validated Spartan Offense.

The Offensive Line looked very good for much of the day, and cannot be overlooked. 444 total yards does not come without consistent domination up front. Wisconsin’s Head Coach Brett Bielema said during the week that up front, the Spartans’ blockers were impressive. Today they lived up to his expectations, and surprised more than a few in the Spartan Nation with their success.

The BBC (Running Back Firm of Bell, Baker, & Caper) was sure to play a major factor in deciding the Big Ten opener. Though The BBC didn’t rip off quite 200 on the ground again, they more than held their own on the day by tallying out 184, and as just as important, 35 yards through the air thanks to a critical drive extending screen pass to So. Larry Caper. With Caper still working back in the mix, the heavier loads again fell on So. Edwin “Rock” Baker and Fr. Le’Veon Bell. But make no mistake, this is one of those “three-piece efforts” that has the makings of something special. The BBC will be force to reckon with in the Big Ten moving forward. They established that precedent quite firmly today, they are the “real deal.”

But just as you can’t mention The BBC without mentioning the Spartans’ OL, you can’t mention The BBC without talking about the lead blocking of Rs.-Sr. FB Nick Bendzuck. Bendzuck again created some holes, led the path, and laid the wood to various would be tackling Badgers. But his efforts were not alone. WRs and TEs from sideline to sideline made the first and second level blocks that can turn gains from 3 or 4 yards into 10 or 20.

Rs.-Jr. QB Kirk Cousins was more than up and down in a victorious 20/29 effort. Cousins threw 3 TDs, but also 2 shaky INTs. One INT was in the scoring zone, and at least one other ball was thrown near the Goal Line in a spot that should’ve been picked off, and would have made two scoring zone INTs for the day. Cousins’ poise under pressure has now become something to recognize and focus on. It’s not that he can’t make the big play, as evidenced by 4th and 1 for the win, but it’s that he has a scary tendency to force, which has led to the “killer play.” The "killer play" is the one that can derail a game, a team, and a season.

To be clear, it’s not to say that Cousins shouldn’t the starter, or even that the starting job should even be considered to open up for competition again. But, it is to say that Cousins’ poise and position as the starting QB is now under much more scrutiny than it was going into the season. If he can’t right the ship, his pattern of committing “the killer play” may be his ultimate undoing as a starting Quarterback. This is an issue that’s now on the Spartan Nation’s football radar.

Interceptions will happen, but you cannot consistently win with a growing trend of throwing Red Zone INTs into areas of coverage where there are clearly more opposing jerseys than friendly ones. It’s inevitable that if the ball keeps getting turned over in critical situations, Cousins (like any Quarterback that would develop such a pattern) will be challenged as the starter before the end of his MSU career. The Spartans are not nearly good enough to have that happen on a regular basis, and still be able to beat the Big Ten’s better teams.

MSU needs Kirk Cousins to keep making great plays, but they need him even more to make clear improvements in his decision making under pressure. He has to keep working to take simply what the game gives him. He needs to show improvement in not turning the ball over, not taking bad sacks, and in throwing the ball away when there's nothing there. The great news is that Kirk Cousins clearly has all the physical skills and abilities to be a very fine and poised Big Ten Quarterback, but he now must improve his execution to avoid any further development of his "Achilles Heel” before it really begins to threaten his position as the staring QB.

Defense

Sr. All-American LB Greg Jones seemed to be all over the field again Saturday, but he wasn’t as alone today, as has too often appeared the case in the past. Jones and Sr. LB Eric Gordon again led the Spartan D, which clearly took a step up today. Today, things were different. MSU got off the field 8 times out of 11 on 3rd down against the “big time” Badgers. The Spartan D was a much improved in that critical area, and never gave up the back breaking "big play" that Spartan Nation has seemingly seen “on repeat” for more than a handful of years now.

In the recent past, the Spartan Defense seemed to be in position to make so many drive-stopping plays on, but too often came up so painfully short. We’ve been told that the Defense was developing, though we really hadn’t seen great evidence of it yet. While there’s still a ways to go, this Wisconsin game could be looked back on as a building block in what hopefully will evolve into one of the Big Ten’s best Defenses in the years to come (not likely this year, to be clear).

In promising fashion this afternoon, the Spartans simply made more plays on Defense. More passes were broken up before completions secured decent chunks of yardage. Much more pressure was applied to Badgers seasoned and Sr. QB Scott Tolzien (23 years old). Tolzien hit the deck in the double digits today, and didn't have a clean white jersey for very long this afternoon.

Though Wisconsin went for more than 150 on the ground, they are Wisconsin for a reason, and they’ll probably average around that number for the rest of the Big Ten season. The Spartans kept both of the Badgers' stellar RBs from breaking the 100 yard total individually, stopping Fr. James White just short at 98, and a hobbled Jr. John Clay to 80 tough yards for the day.

That’s a performance the Spartan D can generally be very satisfied with. It's a notable effort to hold the powerful Badger attack to less than 300 yards for the day, and only 24 points.

Special Teams

Wisconsin clearly has some Special Teams issues, while Michigan State appears to be among the better “special” outfits in the league.

Perhaps one of the key plays of the game was a penalty. Wisconsin’s False Start penalty on a punt with 8:11 left in the 2nd Quarter negated what would’ve been a fair catch or minimal return, and set up a disastrous re-kick. The re-kick looked like trouble for the Badgers from the start. It turned out to be a game changer.

On the Jr. “do it all’ Keshawn Martin’s 74 yard punt return TD, the Badgers did anything but stay in their lanes. The shaky Badger execution allowed K-Mart to do what K-Mart does best: run around and right past those who wish to tackle him. Give Martin space, and he’ll give your Defenders all they can handle. Bucky's boys simply couldn't catch up with Martin on that play.

But if your kicking game already had the clearly established issues that Bielema admitted to before today's game, why in the world would you even kick to “82”? That might have been a “dang coaching mistake.” It's not completely clear. It certainly turned the momentum of the game all the way around, undid the damage levied by the earlier Cousins INT, and totally re-energized the Spartan Stadium crowd.

MSU took the lead on Martin’s game changer, 13-10, and never gave it back. Keshawn Martin is a very special and unique weapon that Spartan Nation should take an extra moment or two to celebrate on this happy Saturday night.

Overall

Let’s face it, things are a bit uncertain right now. MSU does not know when Head Coach Mark Dantonio will be back. Blood Clots are no joke, and are perhaps one of the biggest concerns following any heart surgery. Spartan Nation has no doubt that Coach D continues to receive excellent care, but we cannot predict exactly how his body will respond from here in the recovery process.

On the field, MSU will finally play a road game. We have no idea how this team will handle a road environment, let alone the most bitter and intense game they’ll play all year. In dramatic fashion, which has become customary for these two "neck-and-neck" sibling Universities, Michigan comes up on the schedule at perhaps the most important time. This game will direct each team’s arc to the 2010 finish more than any left on their respective schedules.

Should Michigan lose their third straight to the Spartans and second straight at the Big House, it could begin the “curtains” process for the Rich Rodriguez project, despite their 5-0 start. Should the Spartans lose, it might diffuse the early mounting momentum, and send a season that now has more than a hint of something special back towards its expected, “very solid,” kind of trajectory. Yet, if the Spartans are victorious next week in Ann Arbor, the planted seeds of a special season could be well under way in the process of budding towards of Roses.

*Interact with Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan or inside the Phalanx Forum

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