Spartans' re-tooled offense to face No. 8 Badgers' No. 1 D
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Mark Dantonio made some changes on the offensive side of the ball during the offseason.
The 13th-year Michigan State coach placed all five offensive assistants from 2018 at a different position. Dantonio promoted Brad Salem from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, while stripping Dave Warner and Jim Bollman of their co-offensive coordinator duties.
The re-tooled Spartans (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) are coming off a 24-point loss to No. 4 Ohio State and they get no relief Saturday with a trip to No. 8 Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0), which boasts the top-ranked defense in the country.
"I think they operate very well together," Dantonio said of the Badgers defenders. "They are very well tied together. You can tell it's team defense. They have a lot of guys making a lot of plays and they are bringing people from every direction at times."
Wisconsin leads the FBS in total defense (178.6 yards per game), scoring defense (5.8 points per game), passing defense (131.0 ypg) and third-down defense (.159) while ranking second in rushing defense (47.6 ypg). Senior linebacker Zack Baun had three sacks for the Badgers last week in a win against Kent State to bring his season total to six, which ties for sixth most in the FBS.
Wisconsin has 21 sacks in five games this season, two more the total in 13 games last year. It is the first time the Badgers have three shutouts since 1937.
"We haven't even reached our goals yet," senior linebacker Chris Orr said. "We haven't played the perfect game yet. That's what the main goal is. We kind of don't talk about more than just one week during the season, so right now we're just focused on whatever we can do to demolish any plans that Michigan State's offense has. That's all we're talking about."
Wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. is a big part of Michigan State's offensive plans. The 6-foot-2 senior leads the Big Ten in receptions (41) and receiving yards (624).
"He attacks the ball, strong," Wisconsin cornerback Faion Hicks said. "He's not really a blazer, but he uses his routes — good route-runner — to get open. Strong hands. But other than that, though, I don't think it's too much of a worry."
Jonathan Taylor has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the Badgers' five games this season and leads the nation with 16 touchdowns (12 rushing, four receiving). With 4,916 career yards rushing, the 5-foot-11, 219-pound junior running back needs 84 more to join Herschel Walker (5,596), Ron Dayne (5,091) and LaMichael James (5,082) as the only players to rush for 5,000 yards through their junior season.
"Very physical. Both physical defenses," Taylor said of Saturday's matchup. "So you've got to make sure that you get your mind right and prepared to go into this game. And no yard is going to be given. Everything is going to be earned, so you've got to make sure that you come in with that mentality, and you've got to take it."
Taylor leads the Big Ten with 149 rushing yards per game. Michigan State's rushing defense, which led the FBS last season, currently ranks 21st in the country.
The Spartans have relied heavily on senior quarterback Brian Lewerke, who is averaging more than 35 passing attempts per game. Lewerke has completed 124 of 212 passes (.585) for a Big Ten-leading 1,543 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Wisconsin is 33-5 at Camp Randall Stadium since the start of the 2014 season. Only Clemson (37-1), Alabama (37-1) and Ohio State (36-3) have higher home winning percentages during that span. The Badgers last played the Spartans at Camp Randall in 2012. Michigan State won 16-13 in overtime.
SPARTY VS. THE BEST
Despite the Ohio State loss last week, Michigan State has consistently produced wins against highly ranked teams under Dantonio. The Spartans are 10-8 in its last 18 games against teams ranked in The Associated Press top 10 , including a 9-8 record since 2013. The Spartans have won 14 of their last 25 games played against Top 25 opponents.