Wisconsin presents a unique challenge for Michigan’s secondary. Not only will Wolverine corners and safeties need to help out in run-support against all-world sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, but they’ll also have to stay cognizant of junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who’s a third-year starter completing 63% of his passes.
“He’s a winner,” Wolverines defensive backs coach Mike Zordich said during media availability on Wednesday. “He’s going to come out and do what he’s done the last two years.”
All told, Michigan did a good job bottling up Hornibrook in 2016 and 2017. Combining both years, he went 18-for-44 for 231 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions, but so far this year, Hornibrook is averaging 8.45 yards per attempt, a career best, with only two interceptions versus 15 last year.
Zordich, however, doesn’t see many changes in Hornibrook’s game:
“He’s brought us a battle every game,” Zordich said. “Most of the time he’s in control of the ball, which he’s got to do. They’ve got a great running game, which complements his passing game, so they’ve got quite a package. I’ve always liked him. I really respect him. I don’t see anything different from year to year. I just see the same competitive guy.”
The Badgers will be playing on the road at night, but Hornibrook handled that same scenario well earlier this season. Iowa’s pass defense is good, 30th in the country in yards allowed per game, but Hornibrook had arguably his best game of the season under the lights at Kinnick: 17-for-22 for 205 yards, three scores and no picks.
But Zordich will be relying on cornerbacks David Long, Lavert Hill and Brandon Watson to stifle the Badger passing attack, a proposition that has worked out quite well in 2018. The Wolverines have allowed an NCAA-leading 134 passing yards per game this season and a minuscule, elite 5.15 yards per attempt.
“I’m going to say that I’ve seen all three of those guys take the next step in their jobs and their responsibilities to this team and for themselves,” Zordich said. “I think Brandon Watson, David Long and Lavert (Hill) have each week taken little steps and gotten better.”
We’re giving out our mid-season #Michigan awards.
First up, our TWL first half defensive breakout star:
Fifth-year senior CB Brandon Watson. pic.twitter.com/R0C16a1j95
— The Wolverine Lounge (@WolverineLounge) October 10, 2018
Watson had a pick-six last week against Maryland, so Zordich had special praise for the redshirt senior:
“He’s having a very solid year,” Zordich said. “That was a beautiful play he made last Saturday, too. Experience, leadership values, that kind of guy. In practice, he works his rear end off every day.”
Should a corner go down with an injury, it sounded like Zordich is plenty comfortable with sophomore Ambry Thomas.
“Ambry, since spring, has done nothing but get better,” Zordich said. “He’s had a great fall and he’s continuing to improve as we go through the season, so he’s the next man up. It’s fun watching him on game day because he’s always right there ready to go. He’s definitely earned that spot.”
The days of Wisconsin wide receiver Quintez Cephus (who’s actually suing the school) and tight end Troy Fumagalli are over, but they’ve been ably replaced by speedy junior wide receiver A.J. Taylor (18 catches, 354 yards, two touchdowns) and 6-foot-5 freshman tight end Jake Ferguson (16 catches, 213 yards, two touchdowns). Sophomore wide receiver Kendric Pryor has nine catches for 103 yards, plus a score, and someone to really watch out for in the passing game is sophomore running back Garrett Groshek who has 11 catches for 108 yards including a 43-yard touchdown.
The run-game with Jonathan Taylor is really the engine of the Badger offense, though. Wisconsin averages 287 rushing yards per game, fourth in the country, and 6.16 yards per rush. Put it all together and the Badgers have the 8th-ranked offense according to S&P+.
“They’ll get in these sets, it’s like rugby,” Zordich said. “These formations where everybody’s in there real tight and they’ll run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, and then all the sudden boom, play action and they’re throwing, and guys are coming out of nowhere, so the running game really sets up their passing game, big-time. It’s going to be a challenge for us, and we’ve got to get them into third downs where they’re a little more predictable in what they’re going to do.”
Easier said than done. An artifact of its fabulous run-game is Wisconsin’s .492 third down conversion rate, good for 18th in the NCAA.
When the Badgers get in the red zone, things won’t be any easier for Michigan. Wisconsin has only failed to score once when making it inside the 20. Its 95 percent red zone scoring percentage is 14th in the country and third in the Big Ten. The Badgers are balanced in the red zone, too, scoring nine rushing touchdowns and seven passing.
“They’re very tough in the red zone,” Zordich said. “That’s something we pride ourselves on, so we need to keep playing the way we are as far as keeping them out of the end zone when the ball is in the air. I know the last couple weeks we’ve had some late scores with the ball on the ground, but we’ve got to continue to do a good job keeping them out of the end zone throwing.”
Wisonsin’s lone loss, a 24-21 surprise at home against BYU, might be instructive here. BYU didn’t allow a Hornibrook touchdown. In fact, it was probably the junior QB’s worst game this season: 18-for-28 for 190 yards and a pick.
Secondary run support will be key, especially with the Wolverines getting so thin on the defensive line.
“It’s very similar to last week, except last week they were trying to get to the perimeter,” Zordich said. “These guys, they’re gonna go North and South. For our corners and safeties on the edges, they’ve got to fill the lanes. It’s going to be more of a challenge.”
Man coverage on the outside is a staple of Don Brown defenses, but zone could help the secondary get a jump on its run support, and many fans have wondered if Michigan should play more zone, but Zordich says they’ve only sprinkled in “very little” zone coverages this season.
“Even our zones can turn into man very quickly,” Zordich said.
Something’s got to give, Wisconsin’s offense or Michigan’s defense. Whatever team comes out on top of that matchup will probably keep their national title hopes alive.