- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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As both Wisconsin and Michigan State are finding out, the difficult step from good program to potential powerhouse must be taken in hostile territory.
Make no mistake: both programs have made significant strides in the past year and a half. They shared a Big Ten championship in 2010. They recently have put players on the national radar such as J.J. Watt, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Javon Ringer, Montee Ball and Greg Jones. They're both recruiting well and have coaches (Bret Bielema and Mark Dantonio) who are unlikely to jump ship. Since the start of the 2010 season, neither team has lost a game in its own stadium.
But as we've seen the past two weeks, neither Wisconsin nor Michigan State has truly arrived. The reason: The Badgers and Spartans both struggle to win signature road games.
The issue seems more pronounced with Michigan State than Wisconsin -- more on that in a bit -- but it's separating these two programs from truly putting themselves in the upper echelon.
The Spartans and Badgers are not alone in their struggles. Road wins against good teams have been especially hard to come by this season. Home teams are 18-8 in Big Ten play, and the only division title contender with a home defeat is Ohio State, which fell to Michigan State on Oct. 1.
"You know in this league you're going to go in and get punched in the mouth," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "You better punch back."
Michigan State and Wisconsin must start punching back more often.
Wisconsin isn't far away from making the jump. The Badgers' past four losses -- three road, one at the Rose Bowl -- have come by only 22 points. Their only losses this season -- at Michigan State and at Ohio State -- ultimately resulted from allowing long pass plays in the final minute of the game. And in each contest, the Badgers rallied furiously in the fourth quarter, erasing deficits of 14 points at Michigan State and 12 points at Ohio State.
But the Badgers aren't doing the little things needed to beat good teams on the road. They had punts blocked in each of the games, leading to touchdowns for their opponents. They struggled to get off the field on defense, as MSU and OSU combined to convert 19 of 36 third-down attempts. They didn't control possession time and struggled on punt and kickoff coverage. And in crunch time, they either failed to execute on defense (Michigan State) or had a communication breakdown (Ohio State).
"Every year on the road, it's tough to get a win," Bielema said. "And if you inflict wounds on yourself, it's nearly impossible. We did too many things that cost us the game."
Wisconsin cleared some of its road hurdles in 2010, rallying to win at Iowa and beating Michigan in the Big House for the first time since 1994. The Badgers recorded three consecutive road wins in the Big Ten for the first time since 2006, Bielema's first season.
But in what many believed was Wisconsin's defining stretch of 2011, the Badgers came up short away from home. It cost them a potential shot at the national title and possibly more.
"It's not like we embarrassed ourselves the last two weeks," Bielema said Monday. "There's plenty of teams around the world of college football that were higher ranked than we were that got pounded pretty good by people that weren't ranked or weren't good teams. So I understand why people are upset. And, believe me, there's no one who will be more upset than me, but we didn't make a fool out of ourselves.
"We lost a couple of plays, a couple of games on the heartaches that will last for a lifetime."
Michigan State can't make the same claim about its struggles away from Sparta.
The Spartans' two losses this season -- at Notre Dame and at Nebraska -- have come by a combined score of 55-16. Their two losses in 2010 -- one road, one at the Capital One Bowl -- came by a combined score of 86-13.
"That's one of the things we talked about ... if we're going to win the conference or have an opportunity to be close to it, we've got to go on the road and win," Dantonio said. "We have won 12 straight games here at home. We've not lost since '09 at home. So we're doing things pretty well here. ... But nevertheless, you've got to go on the road and win. It's a tough environment all over this conference, but you've got to embrace that and be successful there."
Like Wisconsin, Michigan State has taken some steps on the road. It clinched a share of the league title last November with its first win at Penn State since 1965 -- two years after falling to the Nittany Lions 49-18 in a game with similar implications. The win at Ohio State marked Michigan State's first in Columbus since 1998.
But the lopsided losses to Notre Dame and Nebraska signal Michigan State has a long way to go to be a consistently good road team.
"No matter where we play, no matter what stadium, what field, what fan base we have to go against, we still have to be willing to go up and step to the challenge and respond," Spartans defensive tackle Jerel Worthy told ESPN.com. "It's all about a mindset. We just have to go out there, quiet the crowd early and just play your brand of football."
Michigan State's brand this season has been outstanding defense. The Spartans rank in the top six nationally in points allowed, yards allowed and passing yards allowed. Even in the two road losses, Worthy and his fellow defenders have performed well.
The Spartans' problems have come on offense. Michigan State has scored just 26 points and averaged just 288.6 yards on the road. The Spartans have committed six of their 11 turnovers in the three road contests.
It's no wonder Dantonio says his team must take a different mindset on the road -- "more of a defensive posture," he said.
"That's good for him to say," Worthy said. "It shows the confidence he has in our defense."
Of the top six Big Ten title contenders, Wisconsin and Michigan State have the most favorable remaining schedules. Both teams must go on the road twice, and while neither the Badgers nor Spartans face a ranked team away from home -- Wisconsin visits Minnesota and Illinois; Michigan State visits Iowa and Northwestern -- recent history shows they can't take any game for granted.
If both squads survive, they could reunite Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
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