What to watch for: Wisconsin
Seeking copious amounts of unnecessary stress with potential for gut-wrenching twists and turns?
Boy, do I have the Saturday evening activity for you.
No. 15 Wisconsin comes to Michigan Stadium to face off against No. 12 Michigan, in the first leg of a season-defining three-game stretch for the Wolverines. Chances are, your opinion of this Wolverines team will change drastically by Sunday morning, one way or another.
Michigan’s goals all remain on the table. But in order to maintain hopes of a Big Ten Championship, it must win two of the next three games at minimum. All three, and you can start to sniff a College Football Playoff appearance.
One step at a time, though.
The Badgers — a Big Ten contender in their own right — will pose a proper litmus test for just how far the Wolverines have come since the opening-week loss to Notre Dame. Here’s what you should be watching for in the high-stakes affair:
Who plays, who doesn’t and how does it affects the run defense
Simple enough, right? But this could well be the difference.
Slowing down Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor and the vaunted Wisconsin rushing attack is a chore on its own. Taylor has rushed for 849 of the Badgers’ 1,435 rushing yards on the season. Taylor is ranked third nationally in that category, and Wisconsin ranks fourth — behind three triple-option offenses.
The Badgers run the ball nearly twice as often as they throw it; there’s no mystery about what Wisconsin wants to do. Slowing them down becomes infinitely more difficult if Michigan is missing key contributors on the defensive line.
There is little clarity on whether junior Rashan Gary (AC joint), junior Michael Dwumfour (leg), sophomore Aubrey Solomon (knee) or junior Carlo Kemp will be able to aid that effort on the field.
For the most part, mum’s the word, though Solomon’s mother posted a photo on Twitter of Solomon after practice — in which he participated. Solomon hasn’t played since the game against the Fighting Irish.
Purely speculative, it seems like it would take a substantial injury to keep Gary out of this one. Harbaugh hinted after last week’s game that he held Gary out in Michigan's game with Maryland against Gary’s preference. If he does play, it’s worth monitoring how effective he’ll be at a level that will almost certainly be less than 100 percent. Gary’s presence alone will help draw attention, but mere “presence” only goes so far.
Regardless of the status of those aforementioned, this will be a big game for fifth-year seniors Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall, both of whom have taken circuitous routes back into the defensive tackle rotation. Both will be counted on to hold their ground against Wisconsin’s mauling offensive line.
This might be the biggest game of their seasons (careers?), individually.
Can Michigan shut down Taylor and Wisconsin’s run game? That seems highly unlikely. But the Wolverines — with the nation’s sixth-ranked rush defense — can absolutely slow it down. And if they do, it’s not hard to envision this ending in a victory, maybe even a comfortable one.
But, that’s a big if.
How far has this offense come since Notre Dame?
This entire article could be summarized in that one sentence: How far has this team come?
The signs have been encouraging on many levels from what appears to be an improving team. But with that progress coming against five opponents with inferior talent, it will be impossible to know just how far the Wolverines have come until they step on the field Saturday night.
Against the Fighting Irish, Michigan’s offense mustered just three points until late in the fourth quarter while scrambling to mount a comeback. Since that game, the Wolverines have averaged 42.4 points per contest. For the first time since Sept. 1, though, they will face a unit comparable to the Notre Dame defense that controlled the game.
How far has the offensive line come? Can the young receivers gain separation consistently? Will the tight ends continue to be weapons? Can they convert red zone appearances into touchdowns?
Let’s find out.
Can they control the emotions at night?
I know what you’re thinking. I can see your eyes rolling.
I, too, generally hate sports clichés like this one. But it’s a reality that several players addressed this week: Night games — especially at home, with College Gameday in town — are different, and thus require different preparation.
“Big stage, some people get a little bit too energetic, or some people get a little bit too down,” said junior safety Josh Metellus. “They don’t want to mess up.”
This is just the sixth night game in Michigan Stadium history. The crowd will be amped.
Often those heightened emotions only last for the early portion of the game before tapering off. But twice now, Michigan has trailed by a large deficit early, tasked with climbing back into the game. Against Notre Dame at night, the Wolverines trailed 21-3 before anyone could catch their breath.
At Northwestern, Michigan was ultimately able to overcome a quick 17-0 deficit, scoring 20 unanswered points.
If a similar start ensues Saturday, though, it would be tough to imagine the Wolverines mounting a large comeback against a sound Wisconsin team. Keeping emotions in check will play a big role in how the game starts.
Shea Patterson, here’s your moment
At the risk of hyperbole, this stretch coming up is why Shea Patterson came to Michigan. He’s been vocal about playing in — and winning — big games. Here’s his shot under the lights at Michigan Stadium.
In the 2016 matchup, Wilton Speight completed a 46-yard pass to Amara Darboh with 7:56 left to take a 14-7 lead. The Wolverines beat then-No. 8 Wisconsin by that same score (with an assist from Jourdan Lewis’ right arm). It’s hardly implausible to imagine this year’s version coming down to a similar situation. And if it does, Patterson has given fans no reason to doubt he’ll come through.
He’s on pace for over 2,500 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and a 68.8 completion percentage over a 13-game season; the junior quarterback is arguably in the midst of the best season by a Michigan quarterback since Denard Robinson was under center.
But fairly or otherwise, Patterson will ultimately be judged by how he plays in — and whether he wins — these big games. He’d be the first to tell you that.
Prediction: 23-20, Michigan
Well, here you go.