Oct. 20, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist for msuspartans.com
There's a countermeasure for everything in football.
If a defense blitzes a lot, throw screen passes and run draw plays. Speed and quickness can be neutralized with physical play.
Need to contain an elusive quarterback? Two words: gap control.
Fourth-ranked Wisconsin will deploy one of the biggest offensive lines in all of football on the Spartan Stadium field Saturday night, but Michigan State middle linebacker Max Bullough said there are ways around it.
"It's just about us reading our keys and doing our assignments as quick as we can," Bullough said. "All we need to do is just do our job by believing our keys, and we'll be there."
The Badgers' starting five interior linemen average 6-feet-5 inches and 322 pounds.
Only two NFL teams (Cincinnati and San Diego) and a pair of college teams (Georgia and Texas Tech) have bigger offensive lines, according to the Oct. 3 issue of Sports Illustrated.
"They're gigantic up front," said MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
It's no wonder Wisconsin is the only team in the nation averaging at least 240 yards rushing (257.5) and 240 yards passing (265.7) and 50 points per game, and leads the country in third-down conversion (60.3 percent) and yards per play (7.8).
However, for every rock, there's paper; for every paper, there's scissors; for every scissors, there's a rock.
"We've got to penetrate their offensive line," Narduzzi said. "We've got to get penetration on all the run plays."
It should also be noted that Wisconsin has fattened up - no pun intended - on six underwhelming defenses. The Badgers' five Football Bowl Subdivision opponents have an average total-defense ranking of 87th out of 120 teams. Nebraska, at 58th, had the best defense Wisconsin has faced and UNLV, at 110th, the worst.
South Dakota, which is still in the probationary period of the Football Championship Subdivision application process and therefore isn't ranked by the NCAA statistically, would be 77th in the FCS.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is second in the nation in total defense. The Spartans are allowing 186.2 yards per game, just 2 yards behind Alabama.
In last season's 34-24 victory over Wisconsin in Spartan Stadium, MSU held the Badgers to a season-low 292 yards.
"They're as big as they were last year, too, so it isn't anything we haven't seen," Narduzzi said. "Ohio State's line is pretty big, too. But (the Badgers) are a great football team. They're the best football team we've seen so far, that's for sure."
The Spartans have never faced Russell Wilson, however, the fifth-year senior quarterback who transferred from North Carolina State. Wilson is in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race because he leads the nation in pass efficiency (210.9, the record is 186.0), is third in completion percentage (.742) and first in the Big Ten with 259.5 passing yards per game.
Wilson is especially difficult to defend because he's a true dual run-pass threat who can scramble for yardage when the pass play breaks down. He has rushed for 182 yards, averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
Narduzzi said Wilson was a combination of Michigan's Denard Robinson and Ohio State's Braxton Miller.
"He's a phenom," Narduzzi said. "He's unbelievable. I talked to a guy who coached him at North Carolina State who said he's probably one of the smartest players he's ever seen. He doesn't make bad decisions. They've got three turnovers on the year and he's thrown one pick. He's having a great year. He can do a little bit of everything. I don't see another guy like him.
"They're obviously potent. You look at the yards and points they've put up, they're explosive. They're big, they're strong, they're physical up front, they're aggressive."
The MSU defense will present Wisconsin with some new wrinkles, as well. Strongside linebacker Denicos Allen adds speed, quickness and range, weakside backer Chris Norman has been having a breakout season and Bullough is an anchor.
"Wisconsin has always been a downhill running team and we've always focused on stopping the run," Bullough said. "(Wilson) brings a third dimension. I don't think he runs as much as a guy like Denard or even Braxton Miller, but just the fact he can do it makes you game-plan for him.
"I think we (linebackers) were confident coming into the season. There was a lot of talk about guys from last year leaving and other guys coming in without as much experience, but we knew once we started playing comfortably and confident with each other, good things would happen."
It's also good for the Spartans to know that the Titantic was sunk by a scratch, relatively speaking.