MADISON, Wis. - Big Ten football is upon us. After a disappointing 2-6 showing in league play a season ago, it has been a long time coming for the Wisconsin football team to get back into conference play.
Well, the wait is over as the Badgers prepare to match skills with Michigan State later this morning and early afternoon.
Before the Badgers hope to start conference play on the right note, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look at five players and themes to watch during the game. In addition, staff writer Tom Lea makes his prediction as to how the game will play out.
1.) Bounce back for the running backs?
Obviously anytime a team combines for six fumbles, three of which were lost, you can really only go up from there. That is about as close to the bottom as an offensive unit can get.
The running back duo of John Clay and Zach Brown accounted for four of those six fumble, including a staggering three fumbles from Clay. So now after a week of ball security drills, the UW coaching staff expects to see more focus in that department during the MSU game, particularly from Clay.
"I want to see how he plays," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following Thursday's practice. "I don't necessarily have to see how he earns my trust. I pointed out in my press conference that in his previous 15 games he only had four fumbles. I haven't been alarmed by him and ball security in the past. Obviously something was off Saturday.
"We kind of addressed that and talked about it."
Come kickoff, it can be expected that both Clay and Brown will get a fair amount of reps. Last season, the Badgers had a good rushing day against the Michigan State defense. So one can expect UW to try to establish that portion of the offense early in the game.
2.) UW secondary stepping up?
Through three weeks of play, the Michigan State receivers are proving their worth. Blair White, a senior wide receiver that torched the Badgers for 161 yards last season, is back and leading the team with 342 yards receiving on 22 receptions.
Additionally, B.J. Cunningham has tallied 14 catches for 191 yards and Mark Dell has six for 121 yards. Needless to say, the Badger secondary will need to play at a high level.
And it starts with their leader in Aaron Henry.
"They run an offense very, very similar to ours," Henry explained. "I definitely think we've kind of been repping their offense against our defense throughout the spring, being that we go against our own offense.
"I definitely feel like they have pretty much, I don't want to say exact tendencies, but some of the same tendencies. They have a tremendous team and we just got to go out there and play Wisconsin football."
On the season, the Badgers' defense has forced eight turnovers. Four have been fumble recoveries and four have been interceptions. That number is good enough for best in the Big Ten and 14th in the country.
There is no question another solid secondary performance will be needed if UW hopes to get out of Camp Randall with a win.
3.)John Moffitt returns:
Bielema acknowledged that he was unsure if Moffitt, who has been injured for the majority of fall camp and early portion of the season, would be able to handle a full games worth of reps.
He is slated to start at right guard, but junior Jake Bscherer will also get reps at that position. It will be interesting to see how Moffitt handles his first start since the loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. In addition, it will be interesting to see how he handles his first start at a position other than center.
So far, the Badger running game has been inconsistent at best. However, maybe now that the offensive line is finally operating at a level of health it has yet to see in 2009, that aspect of the offense will pick up. Only time will tell.
4.) Special teams play:
Last season, this game was decided by a late Brett Swenson field goal that gave the Spartans the win. This year, it could come down to a late play on special teams as well.
So far, UW kicker Philip Welch has been shaky. He missed his first three kicks of the season only to hit a 57 yarder at the end of the first half against Fresno State. Then, against Wofford, the sophomore missed an extra point.
If it comes down to a late field goal to decide the game, Michigan State definitely holds the upper hand based on Welch's inconsistencies throughout the early season and Swenson's durability and clutch factor he has shown over his career.
In the punting game, UW's Brad Nortman has been one of the Badgers quiet surprises. On the season, the sophomore has 10 punts averaging 44.1 yards per punt. He has also blasted four of those 10 kicks more than 50 yards and pinned the opponent inside their own 20 four times.
5.) Slowing MSU's two quarterbacks:
Much like Wisconsin, Michigan State entered the season with a major question mark at the quarterback position. And much like the Badgers, the Spartans have gotten some answers at the position early on in the season.
Kirk Cousins, MSU's sophomore quarterback, has been impressive throughout the early stages. He has 649 yards passing with a 65.7 completion percentage and five touchdowns to overpower his single interception.
Cousins doesn't pull the ball down much and run. Instead he sits in the pocket and finds a way to deliver the ball, much like UW's Scott Tolzien.
Then there is Keith Nichol, a sophomore transfer from Oklahoma. On the year Nichol has 208 yards passing and three touchdowns. In total, the MSU quarterbacks have nine touchdown passes compared to only one interception.
Needless to say, the Badger defense needs to fluster the MSU quarterbacks, and fluster them early on in the game.
"You see one guy in there and you'll be like, alright, they're going to throw the ball with this guy," UW senior linebacker Jaevery McFadden said. "You're never going to think about the QB running. Then they have the other guy who is more of an athlete. He's more of a quarterback run game, quarterback power.
"He'll scramble and make some plays on you with legs, so you've got to be on your feet with him."
The Badgers seem to have a different vibe about them this year. The defense, albeit against somewhat inferior non-conference competition, has looked more disciplined and capable of creating the turnover.
I expect the secondary to have the best game of the young season and give the MSU receivers a tough time. Thus, in turn, the Spartans quarterbacks will struggle.
In the end, I believe the Badger running game will get rolling and that will open up opportunities to move the ball through the air as the game progresses. This will be close in the fourth quarter before the Badgers score a late touchdown to seal the win.
Wisconsin wins 37-28.
Lea's season record: 3-0