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Big Ten notebook: Badgers try to claw holes in Spartan armor

BY SETH ROBERTS | OCTOBER 19, 2011 7:20 AM

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Some say defense wins championships. Others say it's all about the potency of an offense.

We'll find out which applies to the Big Ten this weekend.

In the green corner sits No. 15 Michigan State, a team that boasts the No. 2 defense in the country. In the red corner is No. 4 Wisconsin; the Badgers' rushing attack is one of the finest in the nation, averaging 257.5 yards per game on the ground with 25 touchdowns.

The two titans will clash on Saturday in East Lansing, Mich., and both head coaches said they were anxious to see if the Badgers' claws would be able to punch holes in the Spartans' armor.

"A number of things [impress me]," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said in a Tuesday teleconference. "They've had one interception and, I believe, three fumbles, so they take care of the football very, very well. Second, they're able to run the football — I think the fewest attempts [in a game] was 39 and the most was 51 rushing attempts."

How Wisconsin's tailbacks — especially junior Montee Ball — respond to the Spartans' No. 3 rush defense will go a long way toward deciding the game. Ball is No. 19 in the country in terms of yards per game (108.8), and he has achieved those numbers on a relatively small number of carries (107 through six games). His average of 6.1 yards per carry is impressive, but his 16 touchdowns (No. 2 in the country) are more so.

Those are gaudy numbers, but Michigan State's defensive stats aren't shabby. In total defense, Sparty gives up 3.3 yards per play and 186.2 yards per game; against the rush, those numbers drop to 2.25 and 67, respectively. The Green and White have given up three rushing touchdowns all season.

"You have to play disciplined football," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said on Tuesday. "… You have to take advantage of the opportunities you get. You're not going to get many, but if you do get them, you have to capitalize."

Back to basics for Buckeyes

For the first time in a long time, Ohio State isn't one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes aren't ranked. They're hovering around .500. While the defense is still pretty good, Ohio State's offense is the 108th-best in the country — and the quarterback situation is such that the Scarlet and Gray threw four passes all game against Illinois last week and completed just one.

Good thing they're entering their bye week.

Head coach Luke Fickell said he won't take his foot off the gas in the free week, especially with the Buckeyes fresh off a win against the previously unbeaten Illini. His team doesn't need rest, he said; it needs to relearn what makes a program strong in the long run.

"My focus isn't really on the rest, [although] obviously we got to be able to do that. We have to focus on getting better fundamentally and making sure we understand it's about work," he said in a Tuesday teleconference. "The only way you get better is to work at it, so we're going to go out there today and start working at it and make sure they understand this isnt a bye rest week. This is a week for us to get better at what we do fundamentally."

Illini have to bounce back

Illinois head coach Ron Zook cited recent history when asked about the Illini's 17-7 loss to Ohio State.

Last year, his squad lost a heartbreaker in to Fresno State the final game of the regular season but bounced back to win the Texas Bowl by two touchdowns three weeks later.

The difference this year, he said, is that the Illini have only a week to correct their mistakes — namely, their rush defense — before they travel to face Purdue on Saturday.

"I told our football team this is our first challenge; it's a new challenge, it's something we have to respond to," Zook said on Tuesday. "… I've been very, very pleased with Monday's practice and this morning's practice — I've been impressed with how the locker room was. They understand it's going to be a tough test, and we'll have to play a lot better than we did last week."


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