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Gould: Wisconsin-Michigan State is a rough, tough challenge

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) signals during first quarter an NCAA college football game against Michigan Saturday Oct. 15

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) signals during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 28-14. | Al Goldis~AP

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:55AM

Can anybody save the Big Ten from the Badgers’ claws?

We’ll find out Saturday night, when No. 4 Wisconsin ventures to No. 15 Michigan State for what’s looking like its toughest challenge.

Key question No. 1: Are the Badgers, who’ve used their high-powered offense to blow out their first six opponents, really this good?

No. 2: How will Wisconsin handle adversity, if and when it comes?

No. 3: Will the Spartans, who are likely to be under the referees’ microscope after their chippy performance against Michigan last week, be able to harness their feistiness in a productive way?

No. 4: Where would once-beaten Sparty be if he’d packed his ornery makeup kit for that trip to Notre Dame?

The answer to that last question, we’ll never know.

The rest of the equation will unfold, though, before a national-TV audience at Spartan Stadium.

After basically bragging that MSU strives for “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said he used a poor choice of words.

“We’re dealing in split-second decisions,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “Some of the personal fouls are difficult to — they just sort of happen. Others are a loss of composure. We have to know the difference between the two and try to omit them.”

Defensive end William Gholston will learn the hard way, watching the showdown with Wisconsin. The Big Ten has given him a one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct. On one of MSU’s six personal fouls, he twisted the facemask of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson nearly 180 degrees; on another, he punched left tackle Taylor Lewan in the jaw.

To prepare for Michigan State, which was whistled 13 times for 124 yards in its 28-14 win over Michigan, the Badgers are practicing turning the other cheek.

“They talk about being unnecessary [rough] all the time,” UW guard Travis Frederick said. “We’re having the scouts do things, push us around, try to get us to react. That helps us prepare for it.”

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema declined to fan the flames. Because he didn’t need to.

“I’m not going to say it’s dirty play,” Bielema said, ‘‘but I do know Michigan State plays through the whistle. Things are going to happen.”

In the likely event that chippy play is confined to the pregame hype, this contest shapes up as a classic Big Ten battle that will be determined by who can run and who can stop the run.

Michigan State is only allowing 67 rushing yards a game, tops in the Big Ten (third nationally), and has given up only three rushing touchdowns all season. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten (seventh nationally) with 257.5 rushing yards a game and has scored 25 rushing touchdowns.

What happens in the running game could determine what happens in the passing game, where Spartans senior Kirk Cousins is coming on and Badgers senior Russell Wilson, the North Carolina State transfer, is playing himself into the Heisman conversation. Whoever runs well will have room to throw.

This will be the first truly hostile environment for the Badgers, but Bielema has no doubts about how Wilson will perform.

“He appreciates the moment,” Bielema said. ‘‘He’s excited. At the end of the Nebraska game, he was talking about how much he loved the big stage. Because of those experiences, you really don’t expect to see him rattled.”

Even if the Badgers, who are sixth in the BCS standings, run the Big Ten table, they’ll need some help to land a title-game berth. Bielema isn’t losing sleep over that at this point.

“Our day will come,” he said, pointing to potential strength-of-schedule gains. ‘‘Just focus on the moment and keep moving.”

Don’t be surprised if these teams meet again in the first Big Ten championship game — if the Spartans can keep their cool now that they’ve thumped Michigan.

Spotlight game

No. 4 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan State, 7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN.

Records: Wisconsin 6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 5-1, 2-0.
The line: Wisconsin by 7.. Gould’s pick: Wisconsin 34-24.

Other Noteworthy games

Indiana at Iowa

Time: 11 a.m., ESPN2.

The records: Indiana 1-6, 0-3
Big Ten; Iowa 4-2, 1-1.

The story line: No, IU coach Kevin Wilson (above) won’t keep going west, and back to Oklahoma. But Hoosiers face another dreary trip.

The line: Iowa by 23.

Gould’s pick: Iowa 38-10.

No. 13 Nebraska at Minnesota

Time: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7.

The records: Nebraska 5-1, 1-1 Big Ten; Minnesota 1-5, 0-2.

The story line: Cornhuskers’ first meeting with Gophers since 1990 will be a tuneup for next week’s Michigan State-Nebraska M&N division showdown.

The line: Nebraska by 25.

Gould’s pick: Nebraska 51-14.

No. 19 Auburn
at No. 1 LSU

Time: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 2.

The records: Auburn 5-2, 3-1 SEC; LSU 7-0, 4-0.

The story line: Plains Tigers have been surprisingly good. But Bayou Tigers, No. 1 in the initial BCS standings, are at home — and that other team from Alabama seems to be the only one in their weight class.

The line: LSU by 22.

Gould’s pick: LSU 42-17.

No. 6 Oklahoma St. at Missouri

Time: 11:00 a.m., FX.

The records: Oklahoma State 6-0, 3-0 Big 12; Missouri 3-3, 1-2.

The story line: With three competitive road losses, Mizzou may be more dangerous than some think. Tigers, apparently inching closer to joining SEC, certainly have nothing to lose.

The line: Oklahoma State by 7.

Gould’s pick: Oklahoma State 34-31.

No. 22 Washington at No. 7 Stanford

Time: 7 p.m.,

The records: Washington 5-1, 3-0 Pac-12; Stanford 6-0, 4-0.

The story line: If Huskies want to make a statement and take a big step to the Pac-12 title game, this is their chance. High-scoring Cardinal, led by quarterback Andrew Luck (below) has been drilling opponents.

The line: Stanford by 20.

Gould’s pick: Stanford 44-28.

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