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October 21, 2011

Weathering the storm

MADISON - Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 269 yards and three touchdowns a season ago against Wisconsin.

Throw most of that out the window.

Edwin Baker carried the ball 18 times and compiled 87 yards. Le'Veon Bell tacked on another 75 rushing yards. Together, the two Spartan tailbacks rushed for 162 yards on 34 carries.

Most of it doesn't matter.

The plays that allowed most of the damage a season ago, in what most Badger players would tell you was one of the most frustrating losses they've been a part of, happened on third down.

That's where that game was won for Michigan State and lost for Wisconsin. And that needs to change this time around.

"That's what we've strived on this week," UW senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus said. "Just making sure we're getting off the field when we need to."

Easier said than done, right?

A year ago the UW players would have said the exact same thing, and they did. Effectively tabbed the money down, Wisconsin gave up 168 of MSU's 444 total yards on third downs during what turned out to be UW's only regular season loss.

The Spartans went 9-of-18 (50 percent) on third down and logged plays of 34, 23, 35, 13 and 11 on five of those conversions. Cousins, one of the more venerable signal callers in the Big Ten, went 10-of-12 for 123 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions on either third or fourth down.

His two interceptions came in the first half.

"He can manage the offense," UW senior free safety Aaron Henry said. "He's going to point things out and know things sometimes before they happen. When you've got a guy like that you can just feel it in the offense.

"Everybody can play with confidence when you have a signal caller that demands a bunch of attention."

Following a fourth quarter UW score that cut the MSU lead to three at 27-24, Cousins led a 15-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that ate up more than eight minutes of a suddenly waning clock.

Wisconsin, with all the momentum in its favor, had a chance to force a three and out and get the ball back to the hot hand of Scott Tolzien. Instead, Cousins hit Mark Dell for a 12-yard gain on third and nine.

That extended the drive.

MSU faced third and 11 just three plays later. Instead of getting off the field, Wisconsin's defense gave up a 35-yard pitch and catch to Larry Caper.

That play put MSU well within Wisconsin territory.

"Coach Chris Ash definitely stresses it a whole lot more," Fenelus said when asked about third down failures a year ago at MSU. "He just looks at the film from last year and how we struggled. We looked at this year and how they convert on third downs.

"They're making it a big emphasis."

Michigan State converted its third straight third down conversion of that drive a handful of plays later. Caper rushed for 11 yards on third and five, granting MSU a first and goal.

Clinging to the idea of holding the Spartans to a field goal, Wisconsin finally stopped MSU on third down. However, a one-yard pitch and catch to B.J. Cunningham on fourth and goal from the one-yard line thwarted any hopes of a Badger comeback.

It was essentially the perfect ending for a Michigan State squad and an effectively disheartening conclusion for a Badger defense that couldn't get off the field.

During that fourth quarter, Cousins completed all three of his passes for 48 yards before synching victory with a touchdown toss on fourth down.

Wisconsin has made it a point not to let that happen again.

"If we stop them on first and second and they're converting on third they just keep driving down the field," Fenelus said. "We've got to be good on first and second so they don't have that third and short and get that quick game on us."

So far in 2011 Wisconsin's opponents have mustered a 32 percent conversion rate on third down. Michigan State, on the other hand, has converted just 38 percent of its third downs. They're not nearly as successful as Wisconsin's offense (60 percent on third downs) in the category, but that doesn't matter.

All that does is whatever happens on Saturday, particularly on third downs.

"Every week we have some goals that we set," Fenelus said. "Third down is one of them. We just want to be good. If they have a third down, out of 10 tries we want them to convert one or none."


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