Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst talks to quarterback Alex Hornibrook during a time out against Michigan State.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — It’s rare these days for a team to beat Michigan State so soundly that the game is essentially over midway through the fourth quarter.
Alabama did it in last year’s national semifinals, and now Wisconsin has a blowout win over the Spartans on its resume — the latest sign that the Badgers should be treated as contenders in what could be a loaded Big Ten.
Wisconsin forced four turnovers and held Michigan State to 75 yards rushing in Saturday’s 30-6 win over the Spartans. The Badgers moved up three spots to No. 8 in the AP poll Sunday, and Michigan State fell nine spots to No. 17.
Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) has not allowed more than 17 points in a game this season, and the Badgers have allowed only three offensive touchdowns.
"Well, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been around some really good defenses," coach Paul Chryst said after Saturday’s win. "Today, it was big and I thought again it was a good plan by our defensive coaches because our kids understood it and they were able to execute it and they were opportunistic."
If Michigan State sometimes seems overlooked in a league that includes Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, one can only imagine how Wisconsin feels. The Badgers won three straight Big Ten titles from 2010-2012, but they’ve made only one appearance in the conference title game since — a 59-0 loss to eventual national champion Ohio State in 2014.
With Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the East Division, it’s hard for teams on the other side of the league to earn too much of the spotlight, but Wisconsin has an opportunity to change that. The Badgers already have beaten LSU and Michigan State, and their next two games are at No. 4 Michigan and against No. 2 Ohio State.
If they win either of those two, they’d have another significant victory that could serve them well with the playoff committee if they were to win the league championship.
"Every time I get on ESPN there’s all this talk about this stretch of three games," defensive end Alec James said, after Wisconsin won the first one with ease.
Michigan State rushed for 260 yards the previous weekend at Notre Dame, but Wisconsin’s front contained running back LJ Scott and pressured quarterback Tyler O’Connor. Michigan State’s low rushing total was partially because of sacks and a mishap on a punt, but the Spartans couldn’t establish any consistency moving the ball.
With Michigan State needing more from the passing game, O’Connor was intercepted three times.
"When some things, you know, opportunities presented themselves, turnovers we were able to capitalize on," Chryst said. "Obviously we think it’s a really good Michigan State team and a good offense, and we respect their running game, but guys were doing their assignments and they were finishing and that certainly gave us a chance."
A season after leading the nation by allowing 13.7 points per game, the Badgers are allowing an average of 11.8. On Saturday, the Wisconsin defense gave up only two field goals and scored a touchdown itself on Leo Musso’s 66-yard fumble return.
The Badgers are now 12th in the nation in total defense and 10th against the run, and if anyone doubted the legitimacy of this team’s impressive start, well, Michigan State can certainly vouch for it.
"Wisconsin played good, fundamental football. They come into the football game, we talked about that all week, how they’ve got both hands on you up front," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "They know what they’re doing, and they do it very, very well. They have a system, and they do it very well."