EAST LANSING - Over the course of Michigan State's undefeated November, offensive line play and the running attack have been arguably the two areas of greatest improvement for the Spartans.
Michigan State (10-2) will be counting those trends to continue when the Spartans play Wisconsin (10-2) in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Michigan State has ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in total rushing offense for the last half of the season. But the Spartans have risen to No. 7 in the Big Ten in yards per carry in conference games, at 4.1.
Michigan State has rushed for 166 and 174 in the last two weeks against mediocre-to-awful defensive competition in Indiana and Northwestern.
But the Spartans' 155-yard performance on the ground in a 37-21 victory at Iowa on Nov. 12 signaled that Michigan State can pound the run in a must-win environment against a quality defense.
"I think it's just a mindset," Michigan State left guard Joel Foreman said after practice on Tuesday.
There is another precedent. Michigan State rushed for 213 yards (5.5 per carry) in the Spartans' 28-14 victory over Michigan on Oct. 14. The Wolverines finished the season ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten in yards allowed per rush, and had a pretty good front seven for most of the season. But the Spartans' running attack was in kill mode that day, and carved up the Wolverines.
In the two games that followed, the Spartans were held to 109 yards rushing against Wisconsin and 101 against Nebraska.
"I think when we first played Wisconsin, we were a young offensive line that had just gone through some transition," Foreman said, "but we have improved tremendously since then and have come together as a unit since then and gelled since then. You can see that on the field and you can see that if you are around the building and watching us as a group.
"But at the same time, Wisconsin has improved as a group. They are six more games in and they have had six more games to play together. I'm not going to say their improvement or theirs is more but I think it is going to be a great matchup for us, and to be able to win that battle in the trenches we need to bring a level of toughness that builds upon the first time we played them."
Jackson Struggled In First Game
Redshirt freshman center Travis Jackson has had a good season as a first-year starter and looks like a future standout. His worst game of the year happened to take place in the first MSU-Wisconsin game.
Jackson was beaten on three separate occasions by three different defensive linemen with swim moves. Jackson was also side-stepped by Badger middle linebacker Chris Borland on a second-and-three stoppage in the second half. Jackson was upset with himself after that play and some of the others.
There have been complete games in which Jackson wasn't beaten once. To spring leaks on four negative plays isn't like Jackson. He will be looking for some retribution in this game, and the Badgers will likely find him to be a more savvy player, and healthier.
Jackson has been bothered by a high ankle sprain most of the year, and seemed to hit a wall in the first meeting with Wisconsin, and the following week against Nebraska.
He then sat out MSU's victory over Minnesota, and then came back strong to finish the year, beginning with the win at Iowa. In the last two weeks of the regular season, the athletic Jackson began getting outside on the perimeter as a pull lineman, something that will be a specialty of his as his career progresses.
"Travis has gained a lot of confidence in what he is doing and how he approaches it," Foreman said.
Foreman understands Jackson's slope of improvement, as Foreman also started as a redshirt freshman, back in 2008.
"He has improved by leaps and bounds," Foreman said of Jackson. "I started right away in my redshirt freshman season and by the end I felt like I was a veteran. Travis is undergoing the same thing."
First-year starters Dan France and left tackle and Fou Fonoti at right tackle are better than they were in the first MSU-Wisconsin game as well.
"You wouldn't even recognize the player Dan France is now to what he was a year ago," Foreman said. "Dan France has made huge improvements. Fou has not even been here a year and the level of play he is bringing is unbelievable.
"All together, I think Mac (junior right guard Chris McDonald) has improved too. He basically has another year under his belt, 12 games in, and I'm still learning stuff. I think our improvement is something that is going to help us reach that next level and be able to get this win.
"And the tight ends are increasing their level of play."
Improved blocking has helped MSU sophomore running back Le'Veon Bell emerge as one of the more productive, consistent ball carriers in the Big Ten.
In Michigan State's last six games, Bell averaged 5.4, 7.6, 5.6, 6.4, 4.8 and 5.4 yards per carry. He has had more than 16 carries in only one of those games. He's fresh.
In the first meeting, he rushed for 87 yards on 16 carries (5.4 per attempt). He helped turn the game around after former starter Edwin Baker fumbled on MSU's first offensive snap, leading to a quick 14-0 deficit.
Baker, one week after rushing for 167 against Michigan, had just 15 yards on 11 carries against the Badgers.
Badgers No. 8 in Rush Defense
Wisconsin ranks No. 8 in the Big Ten in yards allowed per rush attempt in conference games, at 4.2.
Last week, Penn State averaged a healthy 4.2 per carry, but fell behind as the result of turnovers and had to abandon the ground game. The Nittany Lions rushed for 114 yards on the day.
Illinois rushed for 149 yards against the Badgers two weeks ago, good for 4.4 per pop. Illinois had some success running to the outside against the Badgers.
Against Michigan State, Wisconsin's defensive tackles came through with one of their best games of the season. The Badgers also surprised the Spartans on a handful of occasions with late shifts into a 6-1 front, sometimes with both outside linebackers to the same side in run blitzes.
The defensive tackle highlights included:
Ethan Hemer (6-6, 300, Soph.) defeated Jackson with a swim move, stuffing a third-and-three run play with 5:00 to go.
Patrick Butrym (6-4, 285, Sr.) got past Jackson with a swim/wipe move to stop RB Edwin Baker for a loss of two on a first-and-10 during MSU's opening drive of the second half. Two players later, MSU punted.
Jordan Kohout (6-3, 290, Soph.) beat Jackson on a bull rush for a TFL on second-and-long, leading to a punt later in the third quarter.
Because Wisconsin lost the game, most assume that the Badgers will be the ones making adjustments. But MSU will have the benefit of adjusting to those swim moves and 6-1 fronts in the rematch.
Still, the Badger defensive interior has Foreman's respect.
"They play hard," Foreman said. "One of the biggest compliments I can give them is that they play hard. They play with a lot of passion. They take a lot of pride in what they do. They are very good in fundamentals. We can talk all day long about how good their technique is, but they are also a defensive line that plays hard."
"They don't have any household names like a J.J. Watt this year," said Spartan QB Kirk Cousins, "but you don't really see a weakness when you watch the film. There are 11 guys who all do their job very well. There is not a corner or a safety who you say can't cover, or a linebacker who can't stop the run or a defensive lineman who can't pass rush. They are all solid, solid players and that's why they are where they are."
"It's a classic Big Ten game, and winning the trenches is going to win the game," Foreman said.
When asked if he has thought about the consequences of losing this game, Foreman responded: "No. Nope. No. That's all I've got to say. No."
The mindset is clear: losing is not an option.