The laughs have ended. It's time for the Big Ten season. We all had our giggles against NIU, our nervous chuckles during the Fresno State game, and, of course, the side splitting laughs at the expense of Wofford. The jokes are now over. It's time to get serious. Although entering play this Saturday against the Badgers at just 1-2, Michigan State is a better team than its record shows. A team that some chose as a dark horse contender for the Big Ten title this season, the Spartans have lost their last two games by a combined five points. The Badgers certainly also remember the last time they faced the Spartans; a 25-24 loss at Michigan State last season. Revenge will be on the mind of the Badgers this Saturday as they look to show the country that they can win against Big Ten teams.
In addition to the talents of sophomore John Clay and junior Zach Brown, Wisconsin unveiled a new possible running threat against Wofford. Freshman Erik Smith rushed the ball ten times for 54 yards and a touchdown. Although he saw most of his playing time after the game was essentially over, Smith still showed that he is a legitimate option for the Badgers in the running attack, and another issue for defenses to consider. Overall, the run game for Wisconsin against Wofford was not overly impressive. Clay rushed for just 70 yards on 12 carries, while Brown also held the ball 12 times, collecting 63 yards on the ground. In fact, the leading rusher for the Badgers against last week was none other than back-up quarterback, Curt Philips. Philips hadn't been seen on the field since week one, but he took his opportunity to show his stuff and ran with it, rushing for 92 yards, including a 37-yard dash. Philips could be yet another option for Bret Bielema and also a threat on minds of opposing defenses as the season wears on.
Either someone coated the footballs with cooking spray on Saturday, or the Badgers just weren't focused while handling the ball. Either way, the fumble epidemic appeared to spread through the Wisconsin football team faster than the H1N1 virus. Although the Badgers lost the ball just three times, they fumbled it on six separate occasions, including three times in the first five minutes. Luckily for Wisconsin, Wofford was just as careless with the ball, minimizing the consequences of the Badgers' poor ball control. However, Michigan State, and the rest of the Big Ten Conference for that matter, will not be nearly as forgiving if Wisconsin puts the ball on the ground six times again. In order for Wisconsin to win games, the run game is a must, and in order to maintain an effective running game, the Badgers must hold on to the ball.
Coming into the 2009 season, Michigan State was forced to replace several key players. No player was more important to the Spartans last season than running back Javon Ringer. Ringer rushed for over 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns in the 2008 season before leaving for the NFL. Michigan State replaced that talent with a slew of backs who have so far turned in mediocre performances. In fact, the Spartans have averaged less than 130 yards on the ground in their first three games. In addition, the Spartans also introduced a new quarterback this season. Sophomore Kirk Cousins has so far been a solid starter for Michigan State. Last week against Notre Dame, Cousins passed for over 300 yards. However, an interception late in the game sealed the Spartan's fate, and sent them to their second disappointing loss in as many weeks.
Wisconsin simply must be a smarter football team. The Badgers cannot expect to win games, especially now in Big Ten Conference play, if they continue to make the same mistakes they've made through the first three games. Penalties continue to be an issue on both sides of the ball. Whether it's an illegal formation on the offensive side, or an inexcusable personal foul penalty on the defensive side, Wisconsin must stop making these mental errors if they ever expect to be contenders. In addition, the receiving core must also keep its wits up, concentrating on every play. The Badgers dropped a number of passes against Wofford, making Scott Tolzien's job harder than it had to be. The season has come to a point where there is no more room for mental errors; Wisconsin must start playing intelligent football.