Dienhart: Breaking down the matchups II
Yesterday, I compared the offensive and defensive lines, offensive backfields and receiving corps for Michigan State and Wisconsin as they prepare for the Big Ten title game (read the post). Today, I look at the linebackers, defensive backfields, special teams, coaching staffs and intangibles for the Spartans and Badgers. Which team holds the edge in each category?
Hear from Michigan State’s Joel Foreman Trenton Robinson and Kirk Cousins during the Big Ten Football Championship Game players teleconference:
Wisconsin players Montee Ball, Russell Wilson and Patrick Butrym also participated in the call. Listen now:
MICHIGAN STATE: This was an area of concern entering the season with stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon gone. But the unit has developed well as the season has progressed. Michigan State legacy Max Bullough is a wrecking ball that paces the team in tackles and excels at making calls. Denicos Allen lacks size but runs as well as any linebacker in the conference and always is in the backfield. Chris Norman is a steady force.
WISCONSIN: What this group lacks in athletic ability it compensates for with effort. Mike Taylor and Chris Borland rank 1-2 in the Big Ten in tackles, each showing a nose for the ball and unmatched toughness. Borland is a whirling dervish who has a knack for making plays from sideline to sideline.
EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE
MICHIGAN STATE: Just a few years ago, this area was an issue. But it has developed into arguably the best part of the Spartan defense. Johnny Adams is a shutdown cornerback who also excels at playing the run. Isaiah Lewis and Trenton Robinson form a nice safety tandem, directing traffic in the secondary while bringing an edge to this standout defense. The group will be helped by end William Gholston, whose pass-rushing skills were missed in the first meeting with Wisconsin as he sat out with a suspension.
WISCONSIN: The unquestioned leader is CB Antonio Fenelus, a great athlete who covers with aplomb. The coaches like the safety duo of Shelton Johnson, who has two picks in the last three games, and Aaron Henry for a unit that has helped Wisconsin pace the Big Ten and rank No. 3 in the nation in pass defense (144.5 ypg). No league school allowed fewer than the Badgers’ nine touchdown passes.
EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE
MICHIGAN STATE: The Spartans have a top return man in dynamic Keshawn Martin, who can go the distance at any time. Dan Conroy is one of the top kickers in the Big Ten, nailing 14-of-19 field-goal attempts. The Spartans are one of the worst teams in the country covering kickoffs, allowing 23.3 yards per return.
WISCONSIN: This has been a weakness for the Badgers and was especially costly in the loss at Michigan State earlier this season. Wisconsin had a punt blocked and recovered for a touchdown by the Spartans, which was the difference in a 37-31 MSU win. The Badgers also had a field-goal attempt blocked in the game. The next week in a loss at Ohio State, the Badgers had another punt blocked. There also have been issues covering kickoffs. The good news: Jared Abbrederis’ 16.3-yard average on punt returns leads the nation.
EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE
MICHIGAN STATE: Mark Dantonio has instilled discipline, toughness and accountability into a Spartan program that had gotten off track under John L. Smith. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is a hot commodity who has done a terrific job building one of the nation’s top defenses. Losing offensive coordinator Don Treadwell to the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio) after last season hurt, but Dan Roushar has done a good job running the attack.
WISCONSIN: Bret Bielema has enjoyed a meteoric career, as he enters this game with a 59-18 record in his sixth season since taking over for Barry Alvarez. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is one of the best in the business and a hot commodity for job openings. Bielema has seen some top assistants leave in recent years but has done a good job bringing in talented coaches like DeMontie Cross, Thomas Hammock and Dave Huxtable after last season.
MICHIGAN STATE: The Spartans have won four games in a row since a 24-3 loss at Nebraska on October 29. During the fast finish, Michigan State has run better than it has all season with the offensive line seemingly coming into its own as the Spartans have run for 106 yards rushing vs. Minnesota; 155 at Iowa; 174 vs. Indiana; 166 at Northwestern . QB Kirk Cousins also is clicking, as the offense has scored 31 or more points in each of the last four games.
WISCONSIN: Since those back-to-back losses on last-second passes at Michigan State and at Ohio State, the Badgers have reeled off four victories in a row to close the regular season. And except for a 28-17 win at Illinois, Wisconsin has won in lopsided fashion. This team is hungry to get back to the Rose Bowl for a second season in a row. And it’s hungry for payback after losing to the Spartans on that 44-yard Hail Mary pass as time expired in the first meeting.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.