University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema plans to proceed cautiously with starting left tackle Ricky Wagner, who returned to practice this week after missing the last game with a knee injury.
Bielema said Wagner practiced Wednesday and was also “out there” on Thursday. But Wagner will be given today off, then will be evaluated prior to the game on Saturday against Michigan State at Camp Randall Stadium.
“We just have to be cautious to make sure he’s good to go, not him just telling us he can go,” Bielema said.
That means it’s likely left guard Ryan Groy will make a second straight start at left tackle, while senior Robert Burge starts at left guard.
The Spartans have two highly regarded defensive ends in junior William Gholston (6-foot-7, 278 pounds) and sophomore Marcus Rush (6-2, 250). That will pose a big challenge to Groy and sophomore right tackle Rob Havenstein.
“Gholston, he’s getting a lot of hype,” Havenstein said. “An absolute physical freak, tall, great speed, long arms, which really helps.
“Rush, the man is a hard player, you see it (on film), he wears on guys, As an offensive tackle, I’m really looking forward to that to test myself and see where I am, going against these great guys.”
Surprisingly, the Spartans rank last in the Big Ten Conference with six sacks. Gholston and Rush have just one apiece.
Bielema said that is because quarterbacks have been getting rid of the ball quickly.
“People are getting rid of the ball, even teams that don’t naturally get rid of it,” Bielema said. “... Even traditional dropback teams, Iowa’s a dropback team, they were getting rid of the football now, knowing they were going to get pressure.”
As for Wagner, he would likely want to play if it were left up to him.
“I remember in fall camp, Ricky hyperextended his elbow,” Bielema said.
“They told me he was going to be down like four or five days. He came out with a RoboCop elbow brace on. First break ... he was throwing it in the trash can. Went the whole day and never said a thing.”
Bielema also doesn’t want to put Wagner in a situation where it’s hard for him to compete physically.
“If he’s not 100 percent full strength, we wouldn’t put him in that position,” Bielema said.
Meanwhile, junior defensive end Tyler Dippel (shoulder) practice all week and looked “very, very strong,” Bielema said.
Dippel won’t start but is expected to play extensively.
UW has a defense, too
While UW’s offense will be tested against the Spartans, who have the top-ranked defense in the conference, that is also motivation for the Badgers’ defense.
“Our offense obviously gets to go against (Michigan State’s defense),” Bielema said. “But I think our defense wants people to know we’re playing pretty good ball here as well.
“I don’t think our defensive guys necessarily are into that kind of (recognition). They’re not really driven by what kind of awards (they get) or how many people are talking to them.”
Bielema has made a big point this week that Michigan State’s past two games have been defensive struggles, a 12-10 loss to Michigan last week and a 19-16 loss to Iowa in double overtime the week before.
“I think defensively, they know, maybe (more) so than it has been in recent years, we’re really relying on our defense to create field position,” Bielema said.
Another example of that is Bielema deferring on the last two coin tosses UW has won, against Minnesota and Illinois. The last few years, Bielema has almost always taken the ball when winning the toss.
Both times after deferring, UW’s defense started with a three-and-out.
“We’ve deferred the last couple coin tosses, to put our defense on the field to get a stop and now we’re starting with the wind,” Bielema said. “It’s a formula that’s been working.”
Because UW and Michigan State are similar in styles, Bielema said he did a lot of practicing this week with the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense.
“To me, these are the games we play well (in) because you match up well,” Bielema said. “Their offense is very similar to our offense, certain aspects, the power running game, two backs, a tight end, that stuff.
“We did more (ones against ones) on Tuesday and Wednesday than we’ve probably done (since) fall camp.”