Who needs hype, history or cool trophy? Michigan St-Wisconsin as entertaining as rivalries get
Michigan State vs. Wisconsin lacks the history of Michigan-Ohio State, to say nothing of that border war's hype. It doesn't cause statewide angst like Michigan-Michigan State. There's not even a cool trophy for the winner, like Paul Bunyan's Axe or the Old Brass Spittoon.
When it comes to Big Ten rivalries, however, there's none better than the Spartans vs. the Badgers.
Not recently, anyway.
"Not good on the heart, but great environments," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "I don't know how many times I heard last year, if you didn't care who won those games, they were really fun games to watch. From that standpoint, they're fun."
No teams have been better in the Big Ten over the last three years than Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) and Michigan State (4-4, 1-3). The Badgers have won 17 conference games since 2010, with Michigan State second with 15 wins. They've had a hand in the last two Big Ten titles, splitting it in 2010 and winning their respective divisions last year.
The last six games between Michigan State and Wisconsin have been decided by a total of 31 points, with the teams separated by three points or less in half the games. One of the bigger wins during the stretch was actually the wackiest, a 37-31 Michigan State victory last October that ended then-No. 4 Wisconsin's national title hopes. Michigan State blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, only to have Kirk Cousins throw a 44-yard, deflected Hail Mary heave on the game's last snap.
Six weeks later, the Badgers got their payback, beating the Spartans in the first Big Ten title game to earn their second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.
"(The rivalry) most definitely keeps growing," said Montee Ball, whose fourth touchdown sealed Wisconsin's 42-39 victory in the Big Ten title game. "Like Coach Bielema said, it comes mostly from respect. When you play them, you know it's going to be a really physical game, a four-quarter game. That's what you want as a football player."
But their yearly grudge match, at least in the regular season, ends with Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium. The teams are in opposite Big Ten divisions, and theirs was not one of the rivalries protected with a crossover game. Wisconsin instead is assured of playing Minnesota every year, while Michigan State gets Indiana.
"Obviously, we built up a nice little tradition," Bielema said. "There's certain things that, when we split the divisions, were going to go away. Unfortunately, this is a by-product of that."
Unlike the last three meetings, when both teams were ranked and chasing the Big Ten title, Saturday's game is unlikely to have any wide-ranging impact. Wisconsin trails Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division, though neither the Buckeyes nor the Nittany Lions are eligible for the conference championship or a bowl game. Michigan State is struggling to keep itself bowl eligible, having lost to Iowa in double overtime two weeks ago and to Michigan last week on a field goal in the final seconds.
The Spartans also lost to Ohio State by a point in their Big Ten opener.
"We've lost very, very close football games so the foundation, I don't really worry about. We have a program in place," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "We're playing very well on the defensive side of the ball and we need to play to our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. We need to push through the tough times.
"In the end, these things will shape you as a person, I truly believe that. Under adversity you'll see your biggest growth," he added. "We'll be there on Saturday. We'll be ready to go."
Wisconsin isn't exactly where it wanted to be, either, having lost to what has turned out to be a very good Oregon State team and then losing late at Nebraska. But the Badgers have turned things around the last few weeks, led by Ball and fellow running back James White. The two combined for 712 yards rushing in the last two games. With 10 touchdowns in the last four games, Ball is five shy of the all-time NCAA record.
The Badgers are averaging nearly 450 yards of offense over their last five games, and 34 points. They've outscored their last three opponents 69-21 — in the second half.
"Defensively, they've always been solid. But they've done things offensively to capitalize on their personnel and they've put themselves in positions to win," Dantonio said. "I think they've been extremely productive in rushing for 400 yards last week and the week before that. They've been dominant."
And Wisconsin is at home, where it has won 21 straight. Only LSU, with 22 straight victories at Tiger Stadium, has a longer winning streak at home.
"We know we'll get Michigan State's best game of the year coming in here this weekend and we're excited for that challenge," Bielema said. "To get them here in Camp Randall is something we've been looking forward to. ... We're excited to get Camp Randall rocking."