UW, MSU battle to remain perfect
View Gallery (2 Photos)The last time these two teams met in 2004, Michigan State ended Wisconsin’s perfect season. Saturday, the Badgers are looking to return the favor and extend their nation-long winning streak to 15 games. More than just avenging a loss, the game will represent a checkpoint for both teams early in the conference schedule to determine just how good they actually are.”Every week is a playoff,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said during Monday’s press conference. “Every week is an opportunity for you to go out and show what you do. And as you have more and more success, the stakes get higher and higher.” Wisconsin needed several key third down conversions and long drives to hold off Iowa 17-13 last week, while Michigan State breezed through its game against Notre Dame 31-14 in South Bend, Ind.Still, UW came away with a win to set a new program record of eight for consecutive conference games won.”It comes down to us really focusing on our opponent, and I think that that’s a great thing that our program has accomplished, and it really does show that we take it one game at a time,” senior Luke Swan said. The Badgers defense looked impressive in the Iowa game for the first time all season, allowing 228 yards, and more importantly, no first quarter points. However, the Hawkeyes were already without their top receiver from last year, Dominique Douglas, who was suspended after allegedly using two other people’s credit cards. Early in the game, Iowa lost its top two receivers from this season. Whether the Wisconsin defense returned to last year’s form or succeeded against weaker competition will be determined Saturday against a significantly better offense in Michigan State.”I think offensively they do have talent at all positions,” Bielema said. “Michigan State always has athletes, and now what they have is they have a group of athletes that are playing together as one.”Wide receiver Devin Thomas is first-year starting quarterback Brian Hoyer’s favorite target. The two have hooked up for 370 yards and three touchdowns. He also is a terrific return man, averaging 30.4 yards per runback. And the two-headed tailback combination, Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick, is one of the best in the Big Ten. “If we combine those guys together, they would be the leading rusher collectively as one,” Bielema said. “Any time you have two guys back there that can churn yardage the way they can — they both are gifted athletically and know their roles and their schemes — that presents a challenge for you defensively.” Michigan State will provide a similar challenge as Iowa in terms of talent on the defensive front. Its linemen are strong, fast and athletic, according to offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. As a defensive unit, the Spartans have recorded 21 sacks. The best of the group is junior college transfer Jonal Saint-Dic, who has been a nightmare for opposing teams. He currently leads the Big Ten in sacks and forced fumbles with six and five respectively. To put Saint-Dic’s performance into perspective, the entire Wisconsin defense has nine sacks and zero forced fumbles. “If they’re on, they’re on — they can do a lot of good things,” Swan said of the defense. “They’re very athletic.”Even so, Wisconsin’s offensive line has superior size and a determined running back in P.J. Hill. Just as they wore Iowa down by the fourth quarter, the Badgers will try to use that advantage again Saturday.”You could see our big guys were wearing down their big guys, and that really gave us an inspirational, if you want to call it that, lift,” Swan said. Hill has continued to thrive in the pressure situations and will play a key role if the Badgers are going to extend their winning streak to 15. “I think the one thing he’s really been able to do as this season has undressed, is he really understands how to tempo the play a little bit better than a year ago,” Bielema said. Taking over the fourth quarter is something Swan says is a focal point of the team’s identity. “I think we really want to make it our identity that we are a fourth-quarter team, and we’ll finish strong,” Swan said. “That’s one thing we’ll always stress around here, and I think it’s very important that we show that like we did against UNLV and Iowa. When it’s time to go, we’re going to go.”Now it’s time, Swan said, for the Badgers to play well from the outset.