Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 10/26/12
MADISON, Wis. There will be no regular-season trophy on the line, no fancy name for some kind of heated decades-long feud when Wisconsin and Michigan State meet Saturday on the football field. Five years ago, the term "rivalry" didn't even exist when discussing these two teams. But if a better matchup has developed in Big Ten play since that time, you'd be hard-pressed to find it. "It's not good on the heart, but it's a great environment," Badgers 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." Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 in Big Ten play) plays Michigan State (4-4, 1-3) at 2:30 p.m. CT at Camp Randall Stadium. And if the game at all resembles contests from the recent past, buckle up. Since 2007, when Mark Dantonio took over as Michigan State's coach, the teams have met six times and split the series. No game has been decided by more than 10 points. During that span, Michigan State has scored 199 points. Wisconsin has 196 points. "The way the competition has been the last few years and the way our teams match up against each other, we breed the same type of people," Wisconsin center Travis Frederick said. "The same type of physical, up-the-field offenses and defenses. We have very similar teams and recruiting areas. It really creates a good competition and rivalry." Last year, Michigan State edged Wisconsin during the regular season on perhaps the most famous play of the college football season. Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Keith Nichol as time expired, allowing the Spartans to escape with a 37-31 victory in East Lansing. The ball bounced off Michigan State wide receiver B.J. Cunningham's facemask, and the catch was ruled short of the goal line on the field. Replay officials overturned the call, ruining Wisconsin's bid for a national championship appearance following a 6-0 start. The loss was stunning to be sure, but the season series wasn't done yet. Wisconsin edged Michigan State, 42-39, in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis less than two months later. Badgers running back Montee Ball scored a seven-yard touchdown with 3:45 remaining to give his team the lead for good, and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson was named the game's most valuable player. What should we expect this season? The star quarterbacks are gone, but both teams maintain tough-nosed defenses. Michigan State ranks fifth in the country in total defense, allowing just 277.1 yards per game. Wisconsin ranks 18th in that category (315.6 yards). The Spartans are 11th in scoring defense (15.3 points) and the Badgers 21st (17.8). Wisconsin's defense held up long enough for the offense to come around this season. The Badgers have scored more than 30 points in four of the last five games since redshirt freshman Joel Stave took over at quarterback. Ball and fellow running back James White have been on a tear the past two weeks, averaging 356 yards per game combined in that span. Last week against Minnesota, the duo became the only teammates among FBS teams to rush for more than 150 yards in the same game. "Defensively, they've always been solid," Dantonio said. "They've done things offensively to capitalize on their personnel and put themselves in positions to win. I think they've been extremely productive rushing for 400-plus yards last week and the week before that. They've been dominant." Ball's numbers compare favorably with those of Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, an early Heisman Trophy candidate who has since fallen back to the pack. Bell has 984 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. Ball has 982 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. While Wisconsin's offense has sizzled of late, Michigan State's has not. Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell hasn't matched the success of his predecessor. He has completed 160 of 290 passes for 1,799 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. And the team is averaging just 19.6 points per game, which ranks 107th out of 120 FBS teams. "I understand people want to come down on quarterbacks, just like they want to try to come down on mine," Bielema said. "To the outside world that aren't educated, that's very common. But their quarterback is getting better. It's something that I think our defensive coaches really can get a grasp on." The Spartans' offense has struggled, in part, because Michigan State's offensive line has been unable to stay healthy. Right tackle Fou Fonoti injured his foot before Week 3, center Travis Jackson was lost for the season in Week 5 to an MCL injury and left tackle Dan France did not play last week against Michigan because of a concussion. Despite the carrousel on Michigan State's offensive line and the team losing three of its first four Big Ten games, the Badgers aren't looking past Saturday. They know all too well how close the scores have been in recent seasons. "It's very easy not to look at their record," Ball said. "They're the best defense in the Big Ten. It's a huge challenge for us all that we're really looking forward to." Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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