Not only do the No. 24 Michigan State Spartans (4-0) qualify as a familiar opponent for No. 11 Wisconsin (4-0) as time conference foes, they also happen to look an awful lot like the Badgers on the field.
Led by a dynamic running back duo and an efficient quarterback, the Spartans have displayed tremendous balance on offense through four games, averaging 231.5 rushing yards per game and 233.2 through the air.
On defense, the Spartans feature a stout front seven that controls the running game, but has lingering questions in the secondary. Senior linebacker Greg Jones is a physical freak at 6'1"" and 240 pounds and might just be the best defensive player in the country.
Jones aside, the personnel similarities between Wisconsin and Michigan State is striking. Schematically, both teams like to start in the same place as well—running the football.
The Badgers check in at No. 10 nationally in rushing yards per game at 257.5 and the Spartans are not far behind at No. 17. For Michigan State, the quick sophomore Edwin Baker possesses homerun potential and bruising freshman Le'Veon Bell punishes opponents between the tackles.
""Those two guys are outstanding running backs,"" said Wisconsin defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. ""We're going to have to do a great job of making open field tackles and running our feet and using our fundamentals to bring them down.""
As good as the MSU backs are, they have not seen a defensive front as talented as Wisconsin's so far this season. The same applies on the other side of the ball, where junior running back John Clay figures to see an increased workload. Even with the emergence of freshman James White, Clay has rushed for over 100 yards in ten straight games and has also topped the century mark the last two years against the Spartans.
""The last time we went up there … John Clay had a very, very big game,"" head coach Bret Bielema said. ""I think that was one of his first [games] where he kind of was the guy that stepped forward. So he's been there, done that, and now has gotten even better at it.""
To add to the weapons on offense for the Badgers, senior quarterback Scott Tolzien finally turned in a razor-sharp performance last week against Austin Peay and will have two of his best receivers, junior Nick Toon and senior David Gilreath, back on Saturday after both missed multiple games because of injuries.
For Michigan State, junior Kirk Cousins enters his second year as the signal caller, and has put up numbers nearly identical to Tolzien's so far this season. He has an accurate arm and has the ability to avoid the pass rush—a skill that may prove necessary against a disruptive Badger defensive line.
""If your pass rushing lanes break down from a defensive standpoint, he does a nice job of moving within the pocket to buy himself extra time for receivers to get open,"" Partridge said.
Wisconsin made it through the non-conference portion of its season without a blemish, but did so without playing in an environment as hostile as Spartan Stadium is sure to be at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.