Three weeks before the Big Ten’s season began, Wisconsin lost its starting quarterback.
With all that’s happened since, it’s easy to forget. But Jack Coan, a steady if unspectacular starter for the Badgers in 2019, injured his foot in practice and was declared out indefinitely. His replacement was sophomore Graham Mertz, a four-star recruit. In Wisconsin’s first game, he lit up Illinois, completing all but one of his passes.
After that game, the Badgers took another hit — a COVID-19 outbreak that infected 12 players and 10 staffers, including Mertz, his backup and coach Paul Chryst. While Mertz was back for Saturday’s game, several other starters had yet to be cleared, including cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, running back Garrett Groshek and defensive end Garrett Rand.
Watching Wisconsin play against Michigan, you couldn’t tell.
The final score was 49-11, a beatdown in every sense of the word. Wisconsin was better at every position (except punter).
Most notably, what both teams put on the field was a depleted version of their normal selves. The Badgers could make sure that didn’t derail the game. The same couldn’t be said of Michigan.
The Wolverines took the field without both their starting tackles (Ryan Hayes and Jalen Mayfield) and both their starting defensive ends (Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, the latter of whom is out for the season) due to injuries. Boy, was it obvious.
“There’s guys that, they came to Michigan cause they wanted to play,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “Some are playing earlier than they thought they would, and there’s been some good play. Those are some of the areas … to build upon.”
In other words, the replacements need improvement.
Without its anchors, the offensive line struggled to open up holes for the running game. The Wolverines gained just 47 yards on the ground.
On defense, the effect was equally catastrophic. Michigan as a whole has struggled to get pressure on the quarterback all season, but at least Paye was everywhere on the field.
Fifth-year senior Carlo Kemp (normally a defensive tackle) and junior Taylor Upshaw handled the primary duties at defensive end. They combined for seven tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack. As a comparison, Paye finished with five tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry against Indiana — a game he left early with an injury.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Upshaw said last Monday. “Obviously when you have Aidan and Kwity, two guys you really rely on, go down, it’s gonna affect the game, but I have confidence in the backups and even the guys behind me so it’s just gonna have to be one of those things where you have to step up.”
While Michigan’s issues go beyond the injuries, it’s clear that the loss of Hayes, Paye, Hutchinson and Mayfield is really hurting it. That’s not to say it’s an excuse. Losing three of the best players on your team all at the same time is bad luck, but the way the Wolverines have played without them is an indictment of their depth.
Back in 2018, Michigan had Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich at defensive end, both of whom are in the NFL now. Both struggled with injuries at times that season, but the Wolverines had Hutchinson and Paye behind them to step in. On the offensive line, players like fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis, senior Chuck Filiaga and Hayes backed up stalwarts like Jon Runyan, Ben Bredeson and Cesar Ruiz as recently as last year. This year, they’ve had to give starts to true freshman Zak Zinter.
On Saturday, Wisconsin had four different players garner at least 50 rushing yards, and that was without Groshek — its leading rusher against the Illini. The Badgers’ top rusher Saturday was Jalen Berger, a true freshman playing in his first college game ever. He had 87 yards. John Chenal, a fullback with three career starts, had 71 yards. Danny Davis, normally a backup wide receiver, had 65.
“If you’re not embarrassed with those numbers, then you shouldn’t be part of this fricking game,” defensive line coach Shaun Nua said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show Monday night. “I can’t sleep, can’t eat. It’s just unacceptable. … That is not Michigan football.”
But right now, it is Michigan football. With the kind of depth the Badgers have, and the kind the Wolverines don’t, they barely had a chance.
If Paye, Hayes and Mayfield are able to return soon, the Wolverines will get a boost. But that boost will mean little for a team that’s already 1-3.
Wisconsin is a shining example of a team that has depth and knows how to use it, the exact sort of team equipped to do well in the COVID-19 era. Michigan used to be that kind of team, too, but now, it’s the sort of team that throws things at the wall and prays something sticks.
That’s not an excuse, it’s reality. It’s an indictment of coaching, development, recruiting, retention, all things a top Big Ten football team has to have.
One thing is clear: The Wolverines are no longer a top Big Ten football team.
Gerson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @aria_gerson.
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