No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 8 Michigan State rekindle rivalry

It's hard to believe that two teams from the same conference haven't played in four years, but that's the reality these days with unbalanced schedules, expansion and realignment.

For the No. 8 Michigan State Spartans and the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers, this weekend's meeting at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., will be the first since 2012. There is hardly anyone around the Big Ten that will be complaining about the fact the once-budding rivalry gets a chance to be rekindled.

Prior to the hiatus, the Badgers and Spartans were busy playing in some of the most exciting games with some fairly important consequences. In 2011 alone, the teams met twice with the Spartans winning the regular season on a 44-yard Hail Mary from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol on the final play of the game for a 37-31 victory.

A few weeks later, the Badgers got the last laugh when they beat the Spartans in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game behind the play of quarterback Russell Wilson. It was a back-and-forth battle that wasn't decided until Michigan State's punt return inside the Wisconsin five in the final two minutes was negated by a running into the kicker penalty.

The year before, Michigan State beat Wisconsin, 34-24, with a late fourth-down touchdown pass from Cousins to B.J. Cunningham sealing the deal. There was controversy at the end of the season when the Badgers got the nod for the Rose Bowl over the Spartans despite identical records and MSU holding the head-to-head advantage.

Back then, Paul Chryst was Wisconsin's offensive coordinator. Now the Badgers' head coach, Chryst remembers those matchups fondly.

"I always felt going into those game, 'Here's a really good football team with good players and well coached,'" Chryst said of Michigan State. "It was a good football team and you knew it and the kids knew it. It was fun to play those games because you knew you had to be on and you knew you'd be challenged. I think we knew each other well.

"I think what it was mostly, or as much was those games meant something."

It will mean something again this time as Michigan State (2-0) and Wisconsin (3-0) are both ranked in the top 11.

The Spartans (2-0) are riding high after last week's win over Notre Dame and relish the chance to get off on the right foot in the conference against a highly ranked opponent.

"You should get excited for the opportunity," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I think the storylines around it -- being the Big Ten opener, the history with Wisconsin, the fact that of where we're at as a program right now, where they're at -- it all points towards this being a very, very big game, probably bigger than last week. No doubt bigger than last week."

It's bigger because a loss in the Big Ten can make it much tougher to get to the conference championship game. That's especially true for Michigan State, which must get the best of Ohio State and Michigan in the East Division, though Wisconsin has no easy road, either. After taking on the Spartans, the Badgers get Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska in successive weeks.

That means there's little margin for error beginning this week.

"I think the out-of-conference schedule is just what it is," Dantonio said. "You can lose them, still recover and play and win a Big Ten championship. You start playing a little bit more for real I think in terms of understanding that these are the things that lead you to rings, big bowl games, playoffs, those type of things.

"When you're playing in-conference, you get into your division, the chips just get a little bit bigger. But that's the way it's always been here. The more you win, the higher the chips get, the more it's on every single game. It's just the nature of it."

Michigan State will play for the bigger stakes with an offense that is riding high while Wisconsin (3-0) comes in with plenty of questions.

The Badgers have had trouble scoring consistently and could be without senior running back Corey Clement (ankle) for a second straight game. And Chryst hasn't committed to a starting quarterback after replacing fifth-year senior Bart Houston in the second half against Georgia State with redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook.

"Both have to be ready to play, to be sure," Chryst said. "I'm positive of that. Both have to go. I told them there are going to be games where they're both going to play.

"We need both of them to keep growing and go for us. I'll let the week determine all this stuff, with who's going to play running back, who's going to play left guard, who's going to play quarterback, who's going to play receiver, who's going to be the nickel corner."