Michigan vs. Wisconsin will prove each team’s true identity
Michigan (8-2, 5-2) takes on Wisconsin (10-0, 7-0) at Camp Randall in only Wisconsin’s second game against a ranked opponent.
This week’s matchup kicks off at noon – here’s the breakdown.
Michigan vs. Wisconsin: The narrative
Who can forget Michigan/Wisconsin 2016? I can’t. I spotted an olympian at a tailgate, watched the band muster on Hoover, then made my way to Ashley’s to take in the contest (and a little more).
As the final score indicated, it wasn’t a pretty game. Other than a 46-yard Amara Darboh touchdown reception, Michigan fans didn’t have much to cheer for as the the fourth quarter wound down, Wolverines clinging to a 14-7 lead.
Cavemen had more graceful battles.
It looked like the Badgers were about to mount the game-tying touchdown drive when Jourdan Lewis was just like, NOPE:
The crowd at Ashley’s was pleased.
Michigan stayed undefeated and for at least for the next month and a half, it felt like the sky was the limit.
This year’s contest looks like it will have similar caveman qualities. The Badgers have another NFL-caliber running game behind a beefy, cheese-fed o-line and great defense. Their passing game on the other hand is yet to be tested.
Wisconsin is fresh off a 38-14 win over its first ranked opponent, Iowa (6-4, 3-4). The Hawkeyes were ranked 20th but probably vastly overrated due to the shellacking they gave Ohio State. That win is looking more like the annual Kirk-Ferentz-notices-he’s-a-Power-5-coach upset than it is an indicator of how good Iowa is. So, still many questions about how good Wisconsin actually is.
Let’s get to it:
Michigan’s offense vs. Wisconsin’s defense
The Michigan running game took a small step back against Maryland after steamrolling Rutgers and Minnesota (as one does). Junior running back Karan Higdon (6.6 yards per carry) looks like he’ll play after leaving the Maryland game with an ankle injury, but how healthy he’ll be remains a mystery. The Wolverines have solid options behind him (Ty Isaac if healthy, Chris Evans, Kareem Walker), but the run game needs to be at an A+ level against a Wisconsin run D that only allows 2.8 YPC, best in the Big Ten.
Part of the reason the Wolverines need production on the ground is because they’ll want to stay out of third and long by any means necessary. The Wisconsin pass defense is almost as stingy as its run defense, only allowing 5.4 yards per attempt, second in the conference.
But the danger won’t be in throwing it downfield – it’s in dropping back. The Badgers average 3.5 sacks per game, tops in the Big Ten. Two of their linebackers are in the top-three on their team in sacks, meaning Wisconsin gets a lot of its pressure by blitzing (Don Brown will be so proud). Michigan has struggled mightily pass-blocking this year, and I don’t expect them to suddenly get better against the meanest front-seven they’ll see this year (yeah I said it, Ohio State fans).
Michigan’s redshirt freshman quarterback, Brandon Peters, has been good for a first-year starter, but he hasn’t been in must-throw situations yet, and now he’ll be in hostile territory against a team that averages 1.5 interceptions per game. I’ve been wrong two weeks in a row on this, but Peters has to throw a pick at some point. If not, maybe a strip-sack fumble? Maybe both? [shudders]
Michigan’s defense vs. Wisconsin’s offense
The Badgers have run through a string of coaches since Barry Alvarez has left, but their main formula for success has stayed the same: A good defense and great running backs. This year’s vintage is freshman Jonathan Taylor (1525 yards, 7 YPC, 12 rushing TDs). However, the last time Taylor came up against a run D as good as Michigan’s, Northwestern, he only averaged 4.2 YPC. Plus, Mo Hurst is going to eat. He always does. We’ll call it a stalemate.
The game will hinge on Wisconsin’s pass game versus the Wolverine pass D. Alex Hornibrook has not been asked to do much this year, and his numbers are mostly good: 64 percent completion percentage, nine yards per attempt and 17 touchdowns. Lurking beneath those numbers, though, are 12 interceptions, at least one in every Big Ten game and three against Iowa last week.
And here’s what he’s throwing into:
There's a new leader in terms of lowest passer rating when targeted among the nation's corners.
Yes, that's two Wolverines in the top 5, and yes that's David Long who fields the nation's lowest at just 12.2. pic.twitter.com/xw2sMSLeyw
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 16, 2017
If you’re curious, Lavert Hill is at 25.2 and questionable for Saturday (concussion), but senior Brandon Watson is, at worst, an experienced option if Hill is unable to go.
Plus, Wisconsin’s best receiver, Quintez Cephus, is out for the season. Senior tight end Troy Fumagalli is good, but after him there are a lot of young question marks in Wisconsin’s receiving corps.
Michigan has only forced eight interceptions this year, tied for 10th in the Big Ten, but they snagged two last week. There will be relatively few possessions on Saturday due to both offenses’ preference to run, so stealing an extra possession with an interception would be huge.
Special Teams and Intangibles
The Badgers have struggled with punt returns, only averaging six yards a pop and no touchdowns, 10th in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have an advantage in the kickoff/punt game.
Wisconsin has hit 10/12 field goals this season, and Quinn Nordin still hasn’t straightened things out, so the placekicking game favors the Badgers.
The game’s at Camp Randall, Wisconsin has a lot more to play for, and this will be the most hostile environment Peters has encountered.
Final score: Wisconsin 17, Michigan 14