Allison Engkvist/Daily. Buy this photo.

The Michigan football team will take the field on Saturday night against a relatively unknown commodity.

The Wolverines are set to face No. 13 Wisconsin, which hasn’t played a game since its season opener on Oct. 23. The Badgers experienced a COVID-19 outbreak shortly afterward, forcing them to temporarily pause football activities and scheduled games against Nebraska and Purdue. The program peaked at 27 confirmed cases last week, but reported just five active cases on Monday. Among those initial cases were quarterback Graham Mertz and head coach Paul Chryst.

When the Big Ten made its decision to play football this fall, it knew situations like this were possible. It wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last, as this week showed. Just this Wednesday, Maryland canceled this weekend’s game against Ohio State after reporting an elevated number of positive tests.

For Michigan, Saturday represents a crossroads. A third consecutive loss would make it even harder to justify extending coach Jim Harbaugh’s contract following next season, adding to the uncertainty of his future in Ann Arbor. On the other hand, a top-15 win could help the Wolverines save their season before it becomes an embarrassment.

In order to get that win, Michigan will have to overcome the uncertainty of a Wisconsin team that’s played only one game. That game came against the Big Ten’s doormat — an 0-3 Illinois team that’s been outscored 117-45 this season. Without former running back Jonathan Taylor and injured quarterback Jack Coan, the Badgers will look much different than what the Wolverines have grown accustomed to seeing in years past. 

Coupled with the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s hard to know what to expect on Saturday night.

“Wisconsin’s been a pretty hard opponent for us in the past,” offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said during a Zoom call with reporters Monday. “Always another hard-nosed football team coming in. It’s a statement game in a lot of ways. In the past, we know what they’ve run. we don’t know if they’ve switched a lot.”

Under Harbaugh, Michigan is 2-2 against Wisconsin. The most recent meeting came last year — a game in which the Wolverines trailed 35-0 at one point in the second half. Neither team has beaten the other on the road since 2010.

One of Saturday’s crucial unknowns is the status of Mertz, who tied the Badgers’ school record for consecutive completions in his debut. Mertz finished 20-for-21 passing with five touchdowns and no interceptions, but after testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 24, he immediately began a conference-mandated 21-day absence.

“Graham, the way that his (isolation) is timing out, he’s starting that process of coming back,” Chryst said earlier this week. “His tests are all done. I think he’ll be able to have some practice and we’ll see if it’s enough practice time.”

Added Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph: “The big question mark is going to be, if we can get Graham to the point where he’s practicing, will he have enough in that you feel confident with him? That’s still in the air. I wish I could be more definitive.” 

Badgers’ backup quarterback Chase Wolf also tested positive, leaving fourth-stringer Danny Vanden Boom — who has thrown only one pass since joining the program in 2017 — as the top option at quarterback if Mertz and Wolf can’t suit up. Players can return to practice on the 19th day of their absence under Big Ten guidelines, provided they are cleared by a physician, meaning any Wisconsin players that tested positive on Oct. 24 would’ve been eligible to practice Wednesday.

The Badgers’ outbreak leaves Michigan with more questions than answers from a preparation standpoint. For better or worse, that will make all the difference on Saturday night.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.