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October 26, 2012

All-Out Blitz: Michigan State

Welcome to this week's "All-Out Blitz," where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent.

The Michigan State Spartans and the Wisconsin Badgers will renew their growing grudge match Saturday when the Spartans arrive at Camp Randall Stadium. The game is scheduled to kick off at 2:30 p.m. CST, and will be broadcast on ABC.

All Out Blitz: Michigan State

What you need to know about Michigan State

Head coach: Mark Dantonio (6th season @ Michigan State), 47-23 (28-16 Big Ten)
Michigan State All-Time Record: 641-431-44 (.594)
2012 Record: 4-4 (1-3 Big Ten)
Ranking: NR (AP), NR (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 29-22-0 (51st meeting)

Did you read this?

Know Thy Foe: Michigan State

Last year

The Spartans have enjoyed a lot of success recently under head coach Mark Dantonio. Michigan State won 11 games (a program high mark) in back-to-back seasons, and just narrowly missed going to a BCS Bowl in both 2010 and 2011. The Spartans also maintained a winning streak over Michigan, and got their season on track by upsetting the Badgers 37-31 on a Hail Mary pass from former quarterback Kirk Cousins.

A loss to Nebraska complicated matters for them in the Legends Division, but they made it to Indianapolis for a rematch with the Badgers in early December. Wisconsin and Michigan State played another tight game, but the Badgers got their revenge with a 42-39 win, and denied the Spartans their first Rose Bowl berth since 1988. The Spartans then beat Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl, giving Dantonio his first bowl win as the head coach at Michigan State.

Season outlook

With eight starters returning on defense, the Spartans looked like one of the Big Ten's best teams at the start of the season. They entered the season as pre-season favorites to win the Legends division again, and many though this was their year to win their first outright Big Ten title since 1987. The Spartans had a tough schedule to deal with, including non-conference matchups against Boise State and Notre Dame, but it seemed like their Big Ten schedule was manageable. Road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin highlighted their road slate, giving the impression that it was BCS Bowl or bust for this Michigan State team.

This year

Of course, not everything goes according to plan. The Spartans started off their season well with a win over then-No. 21 Boise State, and blew out Central Michigan 41-7 on the road. But then problems started to creep up, especially on offense. Michigan State's offense put up just three points against Notre Dame, and while they beat Eastern Michigan at home, the Big Ten slate hasn't been so kind. Aside from a tight win over Indiana, the Spartans have lost three Big Ten games to Ohio State, Iowa, and Michigan by a combined six points. The Spartans will enter Camp Randall Stadium with a 4-4 record, but it's important to remember that they're a few lucky bounces away from a winning record.

To put it lightly, Michigan State's offense has been bad this season. The Spartans rank 88th in the nation in total offense, and have averaged just over 19 points per game in Big Ten play. The root of the problem seems to be the lack of a passing game, and inconsistent play at quarterback.

Andrew Maxwell is in his first year as the starter after Kirk Cousins moved on to the NFL, and has struggled at times this season. Maxwell is completing 55.2 percent of his passes this season, and has thrown for 1799 yards through eight games. The junior has five interceptions and seven touchdowns, but three of those interceptions came against Boise State in his first game of the season. Since that game Maxwell has a seven-to-two touchdown to interception ratio, so there's definitely been some improvement. Even still, the Spartans certainly miss the experience that Cousins brought to the table.

Maxwell hasn't exactly been getting a lot of help from his wide receivers, though. The Spartans lost 82.5 percent of last year's receiving yardage to graduation, and have had trouble finding dependable replacements for the likes of B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol. Their top returning "receiver" for this year was actually tailback Le'Veon Bell. So far this season sophomore Keith Mumphery has emerged as Maxwell's top target. The 6-foot Mumphery has 349 yards on 27 receptions, but just one touchdown. Junior wideout Bernie Fowler has also broken the 300-yard mark for the Spartans this season, as has tight end Dion Sims. It's a young group, but their struggles this season should pay off down the road.

I've already mentioned Bell, and you can definitely make a case for him as the Big Ten's best tailback. At 984 yards, Bell has accounted for almost a third of Michigan State's total offense on 226 touches. It's a tough load, but Bell seems to have taken it in stride. Bell has eight touchdowns this season, and while his yards-per-carry has dropped to 4.35 this season from 5.21 last year, it's clear that Bell keeps the offense afloat when the receiving corps is struggling. I was a little concerned about Bell's touches to start the season, since he's had about 40 in a couple games this season, but Bell's a durable and patient back that should be able to handle it.

But Michigan State has made its name on defense this season, which shouldn't surprise anyone. The Spartans returned eight starters from last year's unit, including their entire linebacker corps and three of their four defensive backs. The biggest losses came on the defensive line, but defensive ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush return to bookend the front four.

The stats say it all: the Spartans are tops in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing, and total defense this season. They're fourth in the Big Ten in passing defense, and have picked off six passes this season. The biggest surprise for the Spartans statistically is they only have six sacks this season, and no player has more than one. The Spartans are way off last year's pace, where they finished the year with 45. Teams have been trying to get rid of the ball earlier against the Spartans, but it hasn't stopped defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi from dialing up some extra blitzes once in a while.

Matchup to watch: Joel Stave vs. Michigan State's blitzes

The Spartans will be chomping at the bit to get after Stave, a redshirt freshman who will be starting for just the sixth time of his career on Saturday. Stave hasn't played a defense like Michigan State's so far this season, and they'll do their best to confuse him and force him into making bad throws. Even when the Spartans' offense is struggling, a bad interception could make a huge impact on the outcome of the game.

Stave will have to remain calm under fire and make sure he makes his reads correctly before the snap. Wisconsin's offensive line is playing better recently, but the Spartans will try to overwhelm Stave early and often. It'll be up to him to make sure he throws the ball away if the route he wants isn't there, since the Spartans probably won't be so prone to dropping those near-interceptions he's had. Stave still has a lot to learn, but we'll get a good barometer of where he's at after this Saturday.

The pick: Wisconsin 17 Michigan State 10

The Badgers have shown a lot of improvement on offense over the last few weeks, but I think they'll meet their match for the most part on Saturday. Michigan State's defense has been great, and they've been the toughest on opposing running games. Montee Ball and James White will have tough sledding on Saturday, but I think at least one of them finds their way into the endzone. The Badgers will have to keep Stave from making too many mistakes, since an interception could really be a momentum killer.

If the game were in East Lansing again, I'd probably pick the Spartans. They're a lot better than their record indicates, but it's hard to deny that their offense has been somewhere between "bad" and "terrible" for most of the season. The Badgers will have to contain Le'Veon Bell, but they have been pretty effective against the run this season.

This is looking like an ugly game, and it very well could be that the first team to reach 17 or 20 points wins. Since the game is in Camp Randall, I'm taking the Badgers.

The point after:

The home team has been dominant for the last few seasons. The Badgers beat the Spartans in East Lansing 42-24 in 2002, but the home team has won each match up since then. The Spartans also roll off Wisconsin's schedule after this season for at least four years, meaning any rematches would have to come in a potential Big Ten Championship Game.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.

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