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Wisconsin faces challenge from Michigan State

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, left, talks with quarterback

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, left, talks with quarterback Russell Wilson during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis) (Credit: AP Photo/Andy Manis)

The big game this weekend involves No. 6 Wisconsin traveling to East Lansing to face No. 16 Michigan State in a primetime showdown (Saturday, 8 p.m. on ESPN).

Wisconsin (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) is in the hunt for the BCS national title. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0), whose only loss is to Notre Dame, is a contender to win the Legends Division and earn a spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis in December.

Wisconsin’s last Big Ten loss was last season against Michigan State in East Lansing.

The winner of this game will win the battle in the trenches. Yes, an old-fashioned Big Ten game in late October will be decided at the line of scrimmage.

The key matchup will be Wisconsin’s mammoth offensive line against Michigan State’s defensive front.

The Badgers’ offensive line features starters: left tackle Ricky Wagner (6-6, 320), left guard Travis Frederick (6-4, 330), center Peter Konz (6-5, 315), right guard Kevin Zeitler (6-4, 315) and right tackle Josh Oglesby (6-7, 330). That group has paved the way for Wisconsin’s rushing attack, which ranks seventh nationally with 257.50 yards per game. Montee Ball has rushed for 653 yards and 16 touchdowns on 107 carries and James White has rushed for 416 yards and four touchdowns on 69 carries.

But Wisconsin is more than just running the ball down the opposing team’s throat. The real key this season has been the addition of quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson has helped add great balance to the Wisconsin offense. Wilson has thrown for 1,557 yards with 14 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s completing 74.2 percent of his passes and his passer rating is 210.9.

Wisconsin presents an entirely different challenge than Michigan’s offense did last week.

“Yeah, that's a different challenge, ” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said earlier this week in his press conference. “More two back runs or one back zones, using a tailback, big offensive line, physical, play action passes, down the field play action passes to keep you loose, different sets, different formations. It's all completely different from what we just experienced.”

The Spartans shut down Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson last Saturday and the Wolverines’ offense stalled as a result. Michigan State held Robinson to 123 yards passing and 42 yards rushing in a 28-14 win. In fact, the Spartans held Michigan to just 250 yards of total offense.

Michigan State’s defense is ranked seventh nationally, allowing just 186.17 yards of total offense per game. The Spartans are also eighth in sacks nationally, with 21 in six games. And that will be a huge key on Saturday. Michigan State must pressure Wilson and make things uncomfortable for him.

“Well, I like Michigan State's approach. I mean, to me, when I was a defensive coordinator, the one thing you could do is you can mentally or physically challenge a quarterback,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said during his press conference earlier this week. “And that's exactly what they're obviously doing on film, and some even kind of say it in the papers. So it's awareness. It's out there.

“One of the good advantages of Russell is he doesn't really get overly rattled by anything that I've seen thrown at him, and obviously, Michigan State is a very aggressive defense. They bring pressure from everywhere, all over the field. And I do know this. I think our guys up front, our running backs, our tight ends, anybody that's called into action to protect Russell is going to probably do it to their highest capabilities this coming Saturday, because they know how important it is.”

The Michigan State defense, which is allowing just 10.83 points per game, did suffer a huge blow on Thursday when the Big Ten suspended sophomore defensive end William Gholston for violating the conference’s “sportslike conduct agreement.”

Big Ten rule 10.01.1.A.1 states: “Striking or attempting to strike or otherwise physically abusing an official, opposing coach, spectator or athlete.”

Gholston punched a Michigan offensive lineman in the third quarter of last Saturday’s game.