East Lansing, Mich. – The Big Ten season opens Saturday when Michigan State (2-0) hosts Wisconsin (3-0) for a noon (ET) kickoff. Michigan State is ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 Poll while Wisconsin is No. 11.
The Badgers own a win against then-No. 5 LSU in their season opener but had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat Georgia State, 23-17, last weekend. Michigan State is coming off a 36-28 win at then-No. 18 Notre Dame in which the Spartans built a 29-point lead and then withstood a rally attempt by the Fighting Irish with a timely defensive stop and the offense running out the final 3 minutes, 30 seconds of the game clock.
This will be the first game between the teams since 2012. They played seven games in a span of six seasons before that, including Wisconsin’s 42-39 win in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in 2011, and only one of those games was decided by more than one possession.
The renewal happens on Saturday at noon at Spartan Stadium. Here are five story lines to watch:
1. Run the rock
Michigan State is coming off a 260-yard rushing effort at Notre Dame, its most rushing yards in a game since Oct. 3 of last season when it ran for 267 yards against Purdue. The Spartans had 52 rushing attempts, their most since Sept. 27, 2014, when they also had 52 attempts against Wyoming. The offensive line had its way most of the night against Notre Dame, but don’t expect the same level of success against Wisconsin. The Badgers have allowed just 247 yards on the ground in their first three games, including 126 yards to an LSU team with the same run-first M.O. as Michigan State.
That doesn’t mean the Spartans shy away from who they are. Gerald Holmes (100 yards, 2 touchdowns) and LJ Scott (98 yards, 1 touchdown) had big games against Notre Dame as Michigan State rushed for 190 yards in the second half.
2. Which QB hands off to which RB?
There are two questions surrounding Wisconsin this week, the biggest one being: will senior Bart Houston or redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook start at quarterback? Head coach Paul Chryst has said he will let the practice week decide who plays, although it wouldn’t be a shock to see both players see action.
Houston has started the first three games but was replaced in the second half against Georgia State as Chryst sought an energy uplift. That’s what Hornibrook provided as he led a pair of touchdown drives and a field goal drive to avoid the upset at Camp Randall Stadium.
Who’ll be running the ball for the Badgers is also up in the air. Senior Corey Clement missed the game against Georgia State with an ankle injury. How much of that was precautionary and how much of it was Clement truly couldn’t play is unknown. Backups Taiwan Deal (right leg) and Bradrick Shaw (shoulder) are also listed as questionable on Wisconsin’s weekly injury report. The Spartans will be planning on seeing Clement in some fashion.
Whatever combination the Spartans see, it will be a different style and tempo from what Notre Dame gave them.
3. A tight game
That’s just what these teams do against each other. Their last seven meetings have been decided by 3 (Wisconsin), 1 (Michigan State), 8 (Wisconsin), 10 (Michigan State), 6 (Michigan State), 3 (Wisconsin) and 3 (Michigan State OT) points. The Spartans own a 4-3 edge in those matchups but have outscored Wisconsin by just 6 points (215-209) in those games. MSU head coach Mark Dantonio has no preconceptions that just because the teams haven’t played in four years the nature of the game will somehow change.
4. Get the ball to R.J. Shelton
That would be in any manner possible. The senior had 96 all-purpose yards and 1 touchdown on 11 touches against Notre Dame, although it seemed like he was more involved than that.
Of his 8 receptions, several came on short tosses from quarterback Tyler O’Connor on jet sweeps as he was going in motion. Easy completions for O’Connor, loads of trouble for the defense. Shelton is gifted with the ball in his hands, zigzagging his way around and through defenders as he demonstrated on his 10-yard touchdown reception right before the end of the first half and on the 23-yard play on third-and-3 on the final drive that sealed the win.
Shelton is a tough matchup for any defense because of his versatility and ability to line up in several different positions. If Wisconsin has to pay added attention to him, it frees up other aspects of the offense.
5. A beautiful Green & White day
Temperatures are expected to drop from the mid-80s the East Lansing area has been experiencing to a high of 70, and there is a slight chance of rain (20 percent, according to Weather.com) with partly cloudy conditions for Michigan State’s “Celebration 2016” weekend. MSU is inducting eight new members into its Athletic Hall of Fame on Thursday night: Eric Allen (football/track), Don Behm (wrestling), Trevor Harris (soccer), Steve Juday (football/baseball), Anne Pewe Khademian (cross country/track & field), Ken Popejoy (cross country/track & field), Patty Raduenz (softball) and Mike Sadler (football).
All eight will be honored with a special recognition during Saturday’s game against Wisconsin.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo