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October 2, 2010
Five things to watch: Michigan State
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, BadgerBlitz.com 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.
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.
Though you have to take a win over Austin Peay with a grain of salt, I was impressed with the way the Badgers were able to get through that affair without many miscues. That is something that will carry forward into today's contest against Michigan State.
Lance Kendricks is hot right now and will continue to be. Nick Toon and David Gilreath will give the offense an added boost and the Badgers should roll offensively.
Defensively, getting to Cousins is key. The Badgers cannot afford to let him get comfortable early or he will have a good day. I suspect the Badgers will get some pressure and prevent that from happening.
In the end, I see a Wisconsin win somewhere along the lines of 24-17.
Lea's record: 4-0 straight up and 1-3 against the spread.