On the first play of Saturday’s game, Michigan State’s 230-pound tailback L.J. Scott exploded up the middle like a runaway train. The 20-year-old Scott is the heartbeat of the MSU running attack.
In the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game, Scott did the heavy lifting on an epic 22-play, 82-yard scoring drive against Iowa. He had 14 carries for 40 yards and scored the winning TD with 27 seconds left.
And now, he was back at it again in the 2016 Big Ten opener, bulldozing through the Wisconsin defense. Scott picked up 19 yards on that first down run.
“That first play had us all saying, ‘Alright, let’s wake up,'” said Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy. “That’s all we needed to set the tone. We dictated the terms the rest of the game.”
Boy, did they ever. Scott was held to 52 yards on his next 13 carries and coughed up the ball on the biggest play of the game; one of four Wisconsin takeaways in a dominating 30-6 win at Spartan Stadium.
“Our big focus was to get them out of rhythm (on offense),” said senior linebacker Vince Biegel. “And that was to stop them on the early downs. We were saying, ‘Stop the first down run and have them become something they don’t want to be.’ And that’s taking shots (throwing the ball downfield) on second and third and long.”
Following the aforementioned “wake-up” call, Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt dropped Scott for a loss of 2 yards on the second play from scrimmage.
“Once we took the run away,” Watt said, “we basically had a few ideas on what they were going to do, and most of the time it was passing, so we got to cut it loose a little bit.”
By stoning the run, the Badgers made the Spartans far more predictable. And that put more pressure on quarterback Tyler O’Connor to make plays through the air.
On his 38 pass attempts, O’Connor was intercepted three times and sacked four times. The Badgers also were credited with seven quarterback hurries.
“We had an amazing week of preparation from the defensive standpoint,” Biegel stated. “We said all along that it was going to be a fistfight and we had that mindset and set the tone early.”
After quarterback Alex Hornibrook lost a fumble on Wisconsin’s opening possession, the defense forced the Spartans to settle for a field goal after driving to a first down on the Wisconsin 35.
“Instead of letting them get 6 on the board, we held them to 3. It kind of determined what kind of defense we are — we’re very physical. I try to apply my game and be who I am. And our defensive line, as a unit, tries to show that we have an identity for ourselves. We like to play hard-nosed football,” Olive Sagapolu said.
Early in the second quarter, the Spartans got the ball on their own 25 and linebacker Leon Jacobs and cornerback Sojourn Shelton combined to hold Scott for no gain on a first down run.
On third and 5, UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox dialed up a blitz — overloading one side of the formation with Watt and inside linebacker T.J. Edwards.
“It was an adjustment that we made during the week,” Edwards explained. “Coach (Wilcox) drew it up perfectly for us and everyone executed their job. I was the lucky guy who came free.”
Edwards pressured O’Connor into a late and bad throw to the boundary that was intercepted by Shelton on the MSU 28. Six plays later, tailback Corey Clement scored on a 1-yard run.
“We always try to control the game (on defense),” Edwards said. “We like to have the game in our hands and I think we did a good job of that, and our offense capitalized on them (turnovers).”
With Wisconsin holding a 13-3 lead late in the second quarter, the Spartans mounted another serious drive (15 plays, 62 yards) that stalled at the UW 23. Again, they had to settle for a field goal.
“Those were big wins for us,” said safety D’Cota Dixon.
The best was yet to come.
After a penalty on the second half kickoff backed up the Badgers to their own 11 and led to a three-and-out, the Spartans took over on the 50.
The home crowd (75,505) was engaged for one of the rare times all day. And Scott gave them something more to cheer about by slashing for 7 yards on first down.
At the team hotel on Friday night, Dixon and safety Leo Musso shared a vision.
“We talked about it,” Dixon said of making key stops or plays. “We tried to visualize it. In their minds,” Dixon said, “We already won the game. We just had to put our faith into action.”
It all came to fruition when Dixon lowered his shoulder and helmet into Scott. The football popped free and Musso converged on it.
“I had the easy job,” Musso claimed, “of picking it up and running.”
Defensive end Chickwe Obasih threw the initial block tying up Michigan State guard Brian Allen.
“I started looking (for someone) as soon as I saw it (the ball on the ground),” Obasih said. “We practice it all the time. Country-city blocks.”
“Country-city. Open field. Scoop and score,” Obasih said. “If there are a lot of defenders (around the ball), fall on it. I saw there was open field, so I turned around before he even picked it up.”
The Badgers quickly transitioned from defense to offense on the fumble recovery and return.
As Musso raced down the sideline, O’Connor appeared to have a tackling angle.
“I saw him (O’Connor) lay out a dude from Notre Dame last week,” Musso said.
That was warning enough for Musso to use a spin move that left O’Connor grasping for air.
“It was like he pushed the B-button or something,” said Dixon, invoking a video game reference. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, did he really do that?’ And then he scored. That’s my big brother. I love him.”
Musso had an escort to the end zone. Edwards, Biegel and Derrick Tindal.
Biegel threw the final block on Michigan State fullback Prescott Line.
“It was Leo’s birthday (Friday),” Biegel said. “I told him that was his birthday gift.”
Musso was a prolific tailback for the Waunakee Warriors. During his prep career, he rushed for 5,531 yards and 87 touchdowns. So he knew what to do with the ball when he picked it up.
“You just pick it up and react,” he said. “It was fun to get the ball back in my hands.”
And his teammates had fun with Musso when he got back to the sideline.
“Oh, believe me, we knew Leo was a running back in high school,” Biegel said. “And we were joking about Running Back U — Waunakee High School.”
The Spartans never recovered from that punch to the jaw, Musso’s 66-yard touchdown.
“It was really fun to see how his running back skills actually came into play,” said Dixon, also a former high school tailback. “I was so happy for him, I was ecstatic.
Interjected Musso, “It’s awesome that we can come together and play great team defense.”
The Badgers have given up three offensive touchdowns in four games.
Biegel had the last word.
“I think the best of this defense,” he said, “is still to come.”