UW football: Michigan State game to feature Big Ten players of the year

UW at Michigan State • 2:30 p.m. Saturday
2010-10-01T05:00:00Z 2010-11-05T08:40:28Z UW football: Michigan State game to feature Big Ten players of the yearTom Mulhern | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

University of Wisconsin running back John Clay didn't get a chance to talk to Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones at the Big Ten Conference's annual media days held prior to the season in Chicago.

But that's all right. Clay and Jones have met a number of times playing against each other the past two seasons.

"Especially last year here on the goal line," Clay said. "I got a chance to get in there and score."

Jones appeared to have a clean shot at Clay and went low on second-and-goal at the 1. But Clay, showing he is more than just a power back, made a subtle move and ran right by Jones on a touchdown run in the Badgers' 38-30 victory.

In two previous games against the Spartans, Clay has rushed for 253 yards and two TDs on 46 carries, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. His first 100-yard game came in East Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 1, 2008, when he rushed for 111 yards on just 14 carries in the Spartans' 25-24 victory. The Badgers had two 100-yard rushers in that game — P.J. Hill finished with 20 carries for 106 yards — which is the thing Clay remembers most.

"(The Spartans) are harping on trying to stop the run game, so we're trying to establish that again," Clay said.

Clay and Jones will likely meet several more times on Saturday, when No. 11 UW opens Big Ten play against the No. 24 Spartans. What makes this meeting a little more unique is Clay, a junior, and Jones, a senior, are the reigning Big Ten players of the year on offense and defense, respectively.

"People are going to probably talk about that, with him and me both coming back (this year), playing against each other and a big game," Clay said. "It's going to be a nice battle."

Jones, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, has led Michigan State in tackles in each of his first three seasons. He has 392 career tackles and recorded the first two interceptions of his career in a 45-7 win over Northern Colorado last week.

UW coach Bret Bielema likes to have his players study some of the top players on opposing teams and he said he instructed the linebackers last season to focus on Jones. Bielema has high regard for Jones, calling him the best defensive player he saw on film last season and raving about his intangibles.

"He's a guy that has power as well as balance with finesse," Bielema said. "Just an exciting player."

Jones makes plays all over the field because he never stays blocked. He averaged 13½ tackles in the two games against UW.

"He's always been very, very difficult to block," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "He's always had the ability to get off blocks and close to the ball. He's a very explosive player. He's just got that wiggle, that knack, for making plays."

Even though Jones is widely regarded as the top linebacker in the conference, and one of the best in the nation, he told ESPN.com this game would "define me as a linebacker."

It will be a defining game in some ways for Clay and his offensive line. The Badgers led the Big Ten in rushing the past two years and are second this year at 257.5 yards per game. But as Bielema reminded the linemen this week, they struggled against a couple of the top run defenses last season, rushing 44 times for 118 yards against Ohio State and 33 times for 87 yards against Iowa.

"One thing that we maybe weren't able to do last year was to sustain the rushing yards against the quality opponents and quality defenses," Bielema said. "Obviously one comes on the table this week. I'd like to see what they're going to do or how they're going to handle it."

Michigan State ranks No. 10 nationally in run defense, allowing 85.3 yards per game. But that could be misleading. The Spartans (4-0) have faced three Football Bowl Subdivision opponents and all are among the worst rushing teams in the country in Western Michigan (No. 112), Florida Atlantic (No. 114) and Notre Dame (No. 99).

Even with Jones, the Spartans have allowed 474 rushing yards on 97 carries (4.9 average) to UW in the past two meetings.

"We feel we can run the ball on any defense," Clay said. "So that's what we want to do."

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