Jones vs. Clay: Big Ten's best on display

John Clay, left, and Greg Jones are sure to meet head-to-head on more than one occasion Saturday when Wisconsin visits Michigan State. US Presswire

As part of their preparation for each Big Ten game, Wisconsin coaches prod players to watch stars from the upcoming opponent.

When Michigan State week rolls around, it's an obvious choice.

"I actually encouraged our linebackers a year ago to watch Greg on film," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said, referring to Spartans star Greg Jones. "He plays 100 miles an hour."

Jones and his fellow MSU defenders also are spending the week watching an opposing star. Wisconsin running back John Clay is pretty hard to miss on the big screen.

"He knows that he's bigger than most of the people he's going against and trying to tackle him," Jones said, "and he uses that to his advantage."

If you had to pick two positions that define the Big Ten throughout its rich history, you can't go wrong with running back and linebacker. The league has produced 10 running backs or fullbacks who won the Heisman Trophy (one two-time winner) and five linebackers who won the Bednarik Award or the Nagurski Trophy as the nation's top defender (two two-time winners).

Fans at Spartan Stadium should be in for a treat Saturday afternoon as the league's top linebacker goes up against the league's top running back. The Wisconsin-Michigan State game pairs the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in Clay against the reigning Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year in Jones, who also has been named back-to-back preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

"He’s always the one freed up in the hole, just waiting on whoever has the ball," Clay said of Jones. "Throughout the game, we're bound to meet one-on-one."

Clay typically wins one-on-one matchups.

Listed at 6-foot-1 and 248 pounds but probably closer to 260, Clay presents a unique obstacle for those trying to cut him down. He has eclipsed 100 rushing yards and scored at least one touchdown in 10 consecutive games, the nation's longest active streak in both categories.

Clay already has eclipsed 500 rushing yards this fall despite somewhat limited carries (19.3 per game). Wisconsin has tried to develop reserve backs James White and Montee Ball, and preserve Clay for the Big Ten after he missed much of the offseason following surgeries on both ankles.

"My coaches told me they wanted to give me the carries I needed in the nonconference," Clay said, "get me back in game shape and get me game-ready to take the bulk of the carries in the Big Ten season."

Clay often does his best work late in games when defenses are worn down by his power and Wisconsin's gigantic offensive line. Last year, Clay rushed for 142 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State, with 25 of his 32 carries coming after halftime.

On a 17-play scoring drive in the third quarter, Clay carried the ball 10 times, including one stretch of four straight plays. Jones did his part, recording a game-high 14 tackles, but Wisconsin won 38-30.

"John is a big guy," Jones said, "very, very physical. He's definitely the heartbeat of their offense."

Jones has been the same for Michigan State's defense since the moment he arrived on campus.

The 6-1, 240-pound senior has led the Spartans in tackles in each of his first three seasons and boasts 392 career tackles, 38.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Jones, who returned to MSU for his senior season in large part to improve as a pass-defender for the NFL, rounded out his résumé by recording the first two interceptions of his career this past week against Northern Colorado.

"He's a guy that has power as well as balance with finesse," said Bielema, who also notes Jones' superior vision. "Just an exciting player. As a former linebacker coach, I wish I would have had the pleasure to coach him. ... He's got great intangibles."

Jones has averaged 13.5 tackles in his past two meetings against Wisconsin.

"He's always around the ball," Clay said. "He's a great, athletic linebacker."

Clay has done some of his best work against Jones and the Spartans. His first career 100-yard rushing performance came at Spartan Stadium in 2008 when he racked up 111 yards and a touchdown on only 14 carries.

Clay would have had an even bigger day if a holding penalty hadn't wiped out a 21-yard gain that likely would have salted away a Badgers' win. Instead, Michigan State rallied for a dramatic 25-24 victory.

"We've got to play smart," Clay said. "We can't get down and cause controversy. We've just got to play our game and run the ball."

And when Clay's number is called, Jones will be waiting.

"They're going to get the ball to him and they're going to try to score," Jones said. "That's what I would do if I was them. We have to be at our best.

"It's going to define me as a linebacker."