After five weeks of waiting, Michigan’s showdown with Wisconsin is finally here.
The past five games were fun, and sure, they counted in the standings, but they carried an aura of exhibitions.
Barring a few minutes against Northwestern, the results were never in doubt. Heading into each game, the story was not whether the Wolverines would win but how their performance would be analyzed and what it would tell us about the team.
Now, all that matters is winning.
After Michigan lost its season-opener to Notre Dame, I wrote that “the Wolverines may soon sit at 5-1, once again creating a mirage that all is fine.”
Seeing an improved offensive line, along with Shea Patterson’s play-making ability has curbed that pessimism. There’s a chance that all is indeed fine. Or maybe I’ve missed my own warnings and mistaken the mirage for reality.
The point is, all of these questions will be answered on Saturday by which team comes away with a win.
And winning, contrary to my beliefs after the Notre Dame loss, is entirely attainable. The Wolverines are currently favored by nine points for a reason: they have spent the last month being dominant and the Badgers have not.
Michigan dispatched of the teams’ one common opponent, Nebraska, 56-10, while Wisconsin scuffled to a 41-24 win. Its loss came at Notre Dame; the Badgers’ came against BYU at home.
But the two are very similar, defense-first teams that want to pound the ball on the ground. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor carries the biggest star, with 849 rushing yards on the season in just five games. He finished seventh in Heisman voting last year with over 2000 yards from scrimmage as a freshman.
The Badgers’ problem is inconsistency from the quarterback position.
Junior Alex Hornibrook is in his third year of starting and has posted career bests in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown-to-interception ratio. But in their one loss, he managed just 190 yards and an interception, continuing a career-long trend in which he has two touchdowns against seven picks in his four collegiate losses.
So while Wisconsin’s 36th ranked offense scores just 4.4 fewer points per game than the Wolverines’, it’s more one dimensional — something Michigan proved it could stop last weekend against Maryland.
Its defense also slots in just a tick behind the Wolverines’, with 16.4 points per game compared to Michigan’s 15.8.
The Badgers’ opposing yardage marks, though, are uncharacteristically pedestrian. They haven’t finished outside the top five in rush yards allowed since 2014. This year, they rank just 39th. In the air, they’re allowing 219.6 yards per game, up 56 from 2017.
U-W comes in with the trademark ‘defense and ground game’ label that Wisconsin football carries, but they are going to be much more reliant on their offense than they have been in the past, when they held the Wolverines to 24 points over the past two matchups.
And against Michigan’s defense, that’s not a winning formula.
So maybe I’ve missed my own warnings and been fooled by the last five games. But if I was Lee Corso, I would be pulling out the winged helmet on Saturday morning.