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Friday, September 22, 2023

Wisconsin looks to build first winning streak of season against vulnerable Spartans

After a thunderous performance in Jim Leonhard’s first game as interim head coach, the Wisconsin Badgers will look to build on their momentum against the faltering Michigan State Spartans.

The Wisconsin Badgers (3-3, 1-2) travel east for a showdown with the Michigan State Spartans (2-4, 0-3) on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. 

Both teams are at the midpoint of underwhelming 2022 campaigns following a relatively good 2021 season. Wisconsin, one game removed from firing head coach Paul Chryst, has performed miserably against strong competition due to inconsistencies in all three phases. The Badgers’ three blowout victories, most recently last Saturday at Northwestern, have come versus weak opponents. 

The Spartans, ranked 15th in the preseason AP poll after going 11-2 last year, are on a four-game losing streak and have failed to match their offensive production from 2021. Defensively, meanwhile, they’ve once again been porous, yielding 27 points and 446 yards per game — ranked 113 out of 131 FBS teams in that category. 

To collect its fourth victory of the season, Wisconsin will need to prevent the Spartans’ dormant offense from getting going, replicating its offensive approach from a week ago.

Michigan State offense vs. Wisconsin defense

Michigan State’s 2021 breakout was largely due to the excellence of running back Kenneth Walker, a second-round draft pick and now starter for the Seattle Seahawks. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry and ran for 1,636 yards with 19 total touchdowns last year. 

With Walker, the Spartans ran for 177 yards per game. Now, they’re averaging just 107 on the ground. 

Leading rusher Jalen Berger, who transferred after being dismissed from the Wisconsin program early last season, has stalled after a strong start. 

The sophomore totaled 227 rushing yards in the Spartans’ two season-opening wins over Western Michigan and Akron but has managed a miserable 81 yards (2.6 per carry) in the four losses since. Most recently, he ran for seven yards on five carries in last week’s 49-20 loss to Ohio State. 

Former Badger back Nakia Watson was the difference-maker with 64 total yards and two touchdowns for Washington State in Week 2. Will Berger fare as well in his “revenge game?”

If so, it may be through the air. Berger has 10 catches for 77 yards this season and will be facing a Wisconsin defense which just allowed Northwestern running back Evan Hull to catch four passes for 62 yards. Whichever combination of Jordan Turner, Maema Njongmeta, Tatum Grass or Jake Chaney starts at inside linebacker will need to keep an eye on their former teammate coming out of the backfield.

Spartan quarterback Payton Thorne has regressed from an impressive 2021 campaign. Whereas his 2021 numbers included 3,232 yards, 27 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 148, he’s currently on a 13-game pace for 2,673 yards, 19 touchdowns and 15 picks. Thorne’s passer rating is down to 130, and he clearly misses the attention Walker attracted from opposing defenses. 

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It’s unclear whether Thorne will be starting this Saturday, though. He was benched during the Ohio State game in favor of Noah Kim, whose 6-for-10, 82-yard and one-touchdown stat line suggests he could see additional playing time. 

Michigan State’s passing game features a wide receiver trio of Keon Coleman (26 catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns), Jayden Reed (23, 256, 2) and Tre Mosley (21, 221, 3). Receiver Germie Bernard and tight end Daniel Barker have also exceeded 100 receiving yards. 

Regardless of who’s under center for the Spartans, Wisconsin’s secondary should be fine as long as it remains disciplined. Apart from the Ohio State mismatch, the unit has performed fairly well when it has avoided penalties, and the same should apply this week. 

Wisconsin offense vs. Michigan State defense

Ohio State trounced Michigan State for 614 total yards last Saturday. That’s understandable, however, the Spartans have played abhorrent defense for four consecutive weeks now. 

Beginning with its Week 3 loss to Washington, Michigan State has allowed 529 yards of offense per game. Only one opponent in that span, Minnesota, has thrown for under 300 yards (268). The defense has managed only two takeaways in the last four games while accruing 254 penalty yards.

Inconsistent as he’s been in 2022, quarterback Graham Mertz could have another easy afternoon. 

Against Northwestern, offensive coordinator Bobby Engram’s wise play calling combined with excellent pass protection provided Mertz with clean pockets and open receivers. Look for a similar formula this week, with early-down passes stretching the Spartans’ poor defense to open up the running game. 

Wisconsin’s offensive line will have to be wary of linebacker Jacoby Windmon. While his 5.5 sacks all came in the first two games, the UNLV transfer has demonstrated his game-breaking potential when not properly dealt with. 

Overall, Michigan State doesn’t rush the passer very well — the Spartans have 14 sacks, but 12 came in the first two weeks — and seems unlikely to change that against a strong Badger line. 

Leading Michigan State in tackles is cornerback Kendell Brooks with 57. He’s also forced three fumbles. Linebackers Cal Haladay and Ben VanSumeren have 49 and 43 tackles, respectively. 

The Badgers will be without Chez Mellusi as he nurses a right wrist injury. His four yards per carry have offered reliable backup while Braelon Allen rests, but losing Mellusi could have a positive consequence: more carries for Isaac Guerendo. 

Guerendo, a senior with 92 yards and three touchdowns on 21 attempts, is a significantly more explosive runner than Mellusi. His speed has benefited the return game and could prove similarly impactful on offense. 

More snaps for Guerendo could help the passing game, too, as he’s caught six passes for 60 yards and is the most capable receiver out of Wisconsin’s backfield. 

Building momentum

Saturday is an intriguing opportunity for the Badgers to win consecutive games for the first time in 2022.

Michigan State doesn’t do anything particularly well, and it shows in their 2-4 record. Even so, this would be the most notable victory of the season to date if Wisconsin takes care of business in East Lansing. 

Nothing’s a guarantee in the middle of this up-and-down season, but the matchup certainly favors Wisconsin and, if the Badgers are on top of their game once again, they should win by a comfortable margin. 

As always, The Daily Cardinal will have additional coverage leading up to and following Saturday’s game. Follow @cardinal_sports on Twitter to keep up with our sports content, football and otherwise.

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