Breakdown: No. 15 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 Michigan
Here it is.
After four blowout wins and one furious comeback in Evanston, the Michigan football team finally has its chance at another ranked opponent. The Wolverines’ last shot, of course, ended with a loss to Notre Dame to open their season.
But since then, Michigan’s offense has added dynamism thanks to needed improvement on its line. Junior quarterback Shea Patterson has been kept heathy and mostly upright, allowing him to throw 10 touchdowns with a completion percentage approaching 70 percent.
Those numbers make the Wolverines’ next three games — Saturday’s contest with Wisconsin, next week’s game at Michigan State and then home against Penn State — seem more winnable than they did directly after the loss in South Bend.
The Badgers, however, have the best rushing attack Michigan will face in the regular season, along with a proven quarterback in Alex Hornibrook. The teams’ last meeting went Wisconsin’s way, 24-10, last November.
The Wolverines have the chance to avenge that loss and earn a marquee win this weekend. Here’s how the Badgers and Michigan match up.
Michigan pass offense vs. Wisconsin’s pass defense
Nebraska threw for 407 yards against the Badgers last Saturday — two weeks after mustering just 93 yards through the air against the Wolverines. Wisconsin struggled with the mobility of Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez, who was also dangerous hitting receivers with consistent time in the pocket.
Perpetuating the Badgers’ difficulties are four key injuries to their secondary. Safety D’Cota Dixon said he’ll play despite being listed as questionable while his counterpart, Scott Nelson, will miss the first half after being ejected from last week’s game. Caesar Williams and Deron Harrell — Wisconsin’s starting corners — are also questionable.
Patterson made play after play last week in Michigan’s victory over Maryland, and with Wisconsin’s injuries, he could do more of the same against the Badgers.
Michigan rush offense vs. Wisconsin’s rush defense
Wisconsin’s bad luck worsened Thursday morning with the news that defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk will not make the trip to Ann Arbor. Loudermilk is the team’s best pass rusher and a crucial part of its run defense, which is ranked fifth in the Big Ten and allows 130.2 yards per game.
On the other side, running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said on Wednesday that he “expects” Chris Evans to play. The junior running back went through warmups last week, but ultimately sat out his third consecutive game.
Senior running back Karan Higdon has carried the ship in Evans’ absence with 30 and 25 carries for 115 and 103 yards, respectively, the past two games. Despite the Badgers’ sturdy front, Higdon should get another heavy workload Saturday with Michigan’s run-first style.
Last week, redshirt junior left tackle Jon Runyan said his group has room for improvement in run blocking, and this week would be the perfect time to make that jump.
Michigan pass defense vs. Wisconsin pass offense
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been stellar on the road, throwing for 18 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions his past 10 games. Hornibrook wasn’t fantastic in last season’s meeting — 9-of-19 for 143 yards — but he made trademark tight-window throws to hurt the Wolverines in key moments.
Michigan allows just 134 yards per game through the air, but penalties have somewhat offset that low mark. If the Wolverines can apply pressure and get to Hornibrook on multiple occasions, it’ll pay dividends for their pass defense.
Michigan run defense vs. Wisconsin’s run offense
It’s power football at its finest: the country’s third-ranked run defense against its third-ranked rusher, Jonathan Taylor.
Michigan survived the Terrapins’ tricky, jet sweep-filled run game, but as secondary coach Michael Zordich explained Wednesday, the Badgers are a different animal.
“These guys, they’re gonna hit and go north and south,” Zordich said. “For our corners and the safeties on the edges, they gotta fill the lanes. So it’s gonna be more of a challenge, big-time.
“They’ll get in these sets, it’s like rugby. These formations, everybody’s in there real tight, they’ll run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, run the ball.”
Taylor rushed for 221 yards last week, and even against a top-ranked defense, he can turn in stat-stuffing efforts behind the country’s best offensive line.
Michigan’s stretch of dominance on special teams ended last week. After a Wolverine field goal, Maryland grabbed a 7-3 lead off a 98-yard touchdown return.
Elsewhere, this is a game with two competent kickers — a rarity in college football. Redshirt sophomore Quinn Nordin is up to 8-of-9 on field goal attempts this season, as his leg seemingly grows stronger by the week. The Badgers’ Rafael Gaglianone, meanwhile, is one conversion away from setting the school record at Wisconsin.
It’ll come down to which unit can perform when pressure comes Saturday.
Since the Big Ten signed its TV deal with FOX, night games at Michigan Stadium have become less of a novelty — the Wolverines were required to play at least three split between 2017 and 2018. Michigan played under the lights twice last season, losing to Michigan State before routing Minnesota on a cold November evening.
Edge: Michigan, by virtue of the sports-writing convention of playing at home
The Wolverines have come out of the gates flat against their two best opponents this season, Notre Dame and Northwestern. If they can avoid doing the same while generating some longer passing plays Saturday, it’s a winnable game for Michigan.
Prediction: Michigan 24, Wisconsin 20