Posts Tagged ‘Michigan State Spartans’

‘D’ focused on third downs

October 7, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – Were they going to get off the field? Were they going to give their offense a chance to get back on the field?

Those questions, posed rhetorically by Aaron Henry while fielding questions in a trailer just outside Spartan Stadium last Saturday, likely were going through the mind of many Badger players and fans as Michigan State marched down the field late in the game.

In the end, the answers to the questions were, ‘No,’ and ‘Not really.’

Trailing by three points with 10 minutes remaining in their Big Ten season opener, all the Badgers had to do was hold the Spartans to a field goal. Do that, and they had a chance to escape with a late, game-winning touchdown drive.

Instead, they let Kirk Cousins lead Michigan State down the field for a 15-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock. Not only was UW then trailing by 10 points, it also had little time in which to mount a comeback.

“Of course, of course you’ve got to get off the field. Definitely, man,” Henry said. “The game is won on defense, believe it or not. Anytime you play a team, if you can’t get off the field, if you can’t force the team to punt, you put yourself in a bad situation.”

While they secured three turnovers on defense, the Badgers only forced the Spartans to punt once in the game. Every other drive that didn’t result in a turnover ended with MSU putting points on the board.

Much of that had to do with the Badgers’ inability to get off the field on third down, which allowed Michigan State to string together a few long scoring drives. After allowing the Spartans to convert on 9 of 18 third-down conversion attempts, it’s no surprise that third downs have been a point of emphasis in practice this week.

What may not be as apparent is the focus put on having success on first and second down, to avoid tough third down situations.

“It’s a big issue when on first and second down you’re giving up three or four yards and they’re in third and short, third and three to five,” said defensive end J.J. Watt. “Third and three to five is a hard down to play, and I know it’s a hard down for him to call, so we really can’t put the defensive coordinator in situations like that.”

Though last week’s shortcomings have certainly been a point of emphasis, there’s no lack of motivation on the Wisconsin sideline as they prepare for this week’s opponent.

With border rival Minnesota coming into Camp Randall for Saturday’s homecoming game, the Badgers know exactly what’s at stake. Considering the way they played in East Lansing to open the conference season, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe could not come at a better time.

“You can’t think of a better game to have. If we’re going to go out there and play the game of our lives, this week would be a great week to do it,” Henry said. “I think this Axe is something that motivates everybody in the locker room. You would hate for a team to run over on your sideline and take it.”

Despite the Gophers’ lack of success so far, the UW defense will not be taking them lightly. It’s been seven years since Minnesota held the Axe, with the last six contests being decided by an average of 12 points.

In their last three matchups — two in Minneapolis and one in Madison — the Badgers have won by just over four points a game, and by just three in each of the last two.

With no one on the current Minnesota roster having touched the Axe in their careers, the last thing Wisconsin wants to do is see the Gophers celebrate with it on their home turf.

“They’re a hungry team. This is like the Super Bowl for them,” safety Jay Valai said. “So I know we’ll play them just the same way. It’s going to be a fun game.

“We don’t want anybody to come on our sidelines and have that feeling we felt a couple years ago at Iowa.”

Spartans’ big plays hurt UW

October 2, 2010 Comments off

EAST LANSING — Every time you looked up, it seemed like Michigan State had the ball, and down-and-distance was in the Badgers’ favor.

More often than not though, it also seemed as though the Spartans picked up enough yardage to earn a new set of downs. As if that weren’t enough, many of those third-down conversions turned out to be big gains, dramatically changing the course of the drive and the football game.

“Big plays on defense hurt us,” said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.

“We’re a team that if we do things uncharacteristic of what we are, we’re going to meet failure and not have success in critical situations.”

Wisconsin’s defense was not the only unit hurt by big plays. The Badgers were hurt yet again on special teams in the second quarter when MSU returner Keshawn Martin returned a Brad Nortman punt 74 yards for the touchdown.

While it may not have won the game for the Spartans, Martin’s touchdown changed the momentum in a hurry.

“I wouldn’t say it got us beat today,” free safety Aaron Henry said of the special teams. “But it didn’t help.”

On their three touchdown drives, the Spartans converted on five third downs and two fourth down attempts. Those three drives also featured nine plays of 10 yards or more for the Michigan State offense.

All told, MSU went for 10 or more yards on 17 plays in the game, including three that were at least 20 yards and three more of 30 yards or more. On third down, the Spartans went 9-for-18, while converting two of three fourth downs.

“We need to get it together, man,” Henry said. “It’s just the small things that we’ve got to correct. We know we have a ton of talent, we know we’ve got a real good football team, we know we can play with anybody in the country.

“But today, Michigan State was a little bit better than us.”

On no drive were the Badgers’ third down struggles more evident than the Spartans’ final trip down the field. Reeling off 15 plays over 8:03 for 84 yards, Michigan State delivered a devastating knockout punch to Wisconsin.

Crucial to their success on that drive were three successful third-down conversions, from third-and-9, third-and-11 and third-and-5. The first was converted on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins to Mark Dell. That was nothing compared to the back-breaking pass that came just three plays later.

Facing third-and-11 on his own 28-yard line, Cousins found Larry Caper for a 35-yard completion, moving the ball down to the UW 37-yard line.

“We did a great job on first and second down,” cornerback Antonio Fenelus said. “We’ve just got to be able to convert and stop them on those third and longs and just [eliminate] those big plays they had.”

Caper struck again later in the drive, rushing for 11 yards on third-and-5, which set up a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line and gave Michigan State a shot at a game-winning touchdown a few plays later.

Wisconsin’s inability to prevent big plays and stop Michigan State on third down was reflected in the final statistics for the Spartan offense. On the ground, MSU outgained UW 175 yards to 165. Through the air, Sparty put up 269 yards to just 127 for Bucky.

All told, the Spartans tallied 444 yards to 292 for Wisconsin. Both numbers were far from the Badgers’ season averages of 484 yards per game offensively and 265.2 given up on defense.

“That’s all on the players, we’ve got to pick it up,” safety Jay Valai said. “It was very frustrating because we’re a better defense than that. We’ve got to be able to stop them eventually.”

Five things to watch: Michigan State

October 2, 2010 Comments off

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Finally, after four weeks of nonconference opponents, Big Ten play begins. There will be no easing into the conference slate for the Badgers either, as they head into Spartan Stadium for a battle between undefeated Big Ten squads.
Before things kick off on ABC this afternoon, offers a number of things to watch during today’s game, as well as a prediction.

1.) Man in the Mirror

When they take the field against Michigan State, the Badgers will see plenty of familiar looks on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Between their two-headed rushing attack — including a rising freshman star — an efficient quarterback and their defensive styles, the home team has a lot in common with Wisconsin.

The key to the game may be which team better takes advantage of the familiarity between the two teams. Considering the Badgers rank ahead of the Spartans in most offensive and defensive categories, the mirror image effect may work out in their favor.


One of the most encouraging aspects of the Badgers’ first four games is how they performed in the absence of top receiver Nick Toon. With its No. 1 receiver having pulled in just four passes for 54 yards through four games, Wisconsin continued to beat teams both through the air and on the ground.

With the return of No. 1, quarterback Scott Tolzien should only perform better than he already has in completing 64 of 84 passes for 851 yards and five touchdowns.

In particular, the Badgers’ immediately become a bigger threat to throw the ball deep down the field with Toon back in the lineup.

3.) Many happy returns

While it was not an issue in their dominating performance against Austin Peay, the Badgers’ special teams units remain the team’s biggest question mark. With a more formidable opponent in Michigan State this week, the need for strong coverage and return units is as high this week as it has been all season.

In particular, the punt return unit draws some intrigue as David Gilreath is expected to return to action this week. Gilreath is not expected to return punts in his first game back since suffering a concussion against San Jose State, which leaves that opening for at least another week.

Taking advantage of the opportunity appears to be free safety Aaron Henry who picked up 30 yards in his only punt return late in last week’s 70-3 win over Austin Peay. Henry will share the duties with Jared Abbrederis, but head coach Bret Bielema seems intent on giving Henry an opportunity at the position.

4.) Two-way player

For the second straight week, freshman Manasseh Garner is set to see action on both sides of the ball for Wisconsin. In fact, Bielema alluded to a potentially increased workload for Garner defensively after getting his feet wet a week ago.

With linebacker Chris Borland out, the UW head coach envisions Garner being able to have a similar, if less frequent, impact as a pass rusher in the Wisconsin defense. In his first two defensive plays against Austin Peay, Garner was impressive, finding his way into the backfield and putting pressure on the Governors’ quarterback.

If Garner can have a similar impact against a bigger, stronger Michigan State squad, it will pay huge dividends for the Badgers defense.

5.) No longer under the radar

Through four games, tight end Lance Kendricks has shown why he’s become his quarterback’s favorite target. Thanks to his size, speed and catching abilities, opposing defenses have done little to slow him down.

Kendricks leads the team in both receptions with 17 and receiving yards with 299, while adding three touchdowns. With the start of Big Ten play, however, Kendricks will no longer pose quite the same matchup nightmare for opponents.

That’s not to say Kendricks will be easy for conference foes to stop, but they’ll have a better chance than a team like Austin Peay or San Jose State.

While the running game and the return of Toon certainly are important to the offense, the better the performance of the Badgers tight end, the more likely they’ll be to come away with a road win.

Schelling’s prediction

Sure, things got interesting against Arizona State, but Michigan State clearly poses the biggest test yet for Wisconsin. Fortunately for the Badgers, there should be few surprises from Sparty.

With confidence built through last week’s dominant performance, Wisconsin will outlast Michigan State, and return home with their spotless record intact. UW wins 34-31.