EAST LANSING, Mich. – Less than two weeks after a mild heart attack, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is trying to ease back into his job.
His players don't have that luxury.
The 24th-ranked Spartans open Big Ten play at home Saturday with one of the toughest opponents on their schedule in No. 11 Wisconsin. After missing last week's game, Dantonio is returning for this matchup of unbeaten teams, saying he wants his group focused on the difficult tasks ahead instead of on his health.
Michigan State is trying for its best start in more than a decade.
"They'll be as big a test as we've faced all year, and we get it in the first conference game," Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "What you see up here around the building are Big Ten championship signs and Rose Bowl pictures, because that's what we're focusing on. Nonconference play doesn't get us that."
Michigan State (4-0) and Wisconsin (4-0) have traveled similar paths to start the season, each earning a signature nonconference win. For Wisconsin, it was a 20-19 victory over Arizona State two weekends ago. That same night, Michigan State beat Notre Dame 34-31, scoring the winning touchdown on a fake field goal in overtime.
Shortly after that game, Dantonio was hospitalized with heart problems. He's back now, although he's expected to coach from a box high above the field.
"When you look at Wisconsin and you look at us, I think we've played very similar schedules," Dantonio said. "They've run the ball very effectively in the past. We have as well. Their passer is very good in terms of completion percentage and things that he has done in the past. Ours is as well."
Wisconsin's John Clay has 501 yards rushing and six touchdowns this season, and freshman James White has given the Badgers another dangerous option in the backfield. Quarterback Scott Tolzien is completing 76 percent of his passes.
After beating Arizona State, Wisconsin tuned up for Big Ten play with a 70-3 rout of Austin Peay last weekend.
"We're not anywhere close to being where I think we can be, but again, just because of the way we played each week I made a statement to our guys during Sunday's meeting that what we've done every week is we've won the football game," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "We've put ourselves in a position to be where we are today. Each week, they've gotten better."
Michigan State's offense looks awfully similar to Wisconsin's. Cousins is completing 67 percent of his passes and was nearly flawless in a 45-7 win over Northern Colorado last week. The Spartans have also run the ball for more than 200 yards each game behind Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell in the backfield.
On defense, the Spartans are led by Greg Jones, a returning All-American at linebacker who had two interceptions last week.
Michigan State hasn't started 5-0 since 1999 under Nick Saban, but if the Spartans manage it this season, it would set up a tremendous matchup Oct. 9 with Michigan, which is also unbeaten heading into a game at Indiana this weekend. As well as Michigan State has played so far, the Spartans will learn a lot about their season in the next two weekends.
"That's the Big Ten, and that's college football," Cousins said. "That's what we sign on for when we come here, and we expect every game to be a challenge."