The No. 12 Michigan football team has as much confidence as it’s had in two seasons, riding a five-game win streak into Saturday.
No. 15 Wisconsin is a team that’s looking to re-find that confidence. After a devastating home loss to BYU in Week Three, the Badgers have responded with a resounding road win at Iowa and a runaway victory over Nebraska. Unlike previous Wisconsin teams with powerhouse defenses, it’s the offense, led by running back and Heisman-hopeful Jonathan Taylor, that is carrying the strongest team in the Big Ten West.
The Daily spoke to Jonah Malkin, a radio broadcaster for WSUM 91.7 FM Madison, to learn about Wisconsin’s strengths and weaknesses, and what to expect during Saturday’s high-stakes game at Michigan Stadium.
The Michigan Daily: What has been the atmosphere around the team since that loss to BYU?
Jonah Malkin: I’d say it’s cautiously optimistic. The reason is because after that BYU game, Wisconsin did respond well on the road at Iowa, had the bye week and collected another win a couple days ago at Nebraska. I say cautiously optimistic because the secondary — the defense is really banged up going into this weekend against Michigan. While there is certainly a lot of optimism and confidence brewing in the locker room, it’s cautious optimism because it’s gonna be the toughest atmosphere most likely that they’ve played this year, and they’re missing some key cogs on the defensive side. The confidence is still there, a lot of young guys are looking forward to the opportunity to step up.
TMD: What’s the injury report looking like? What impact will it have on the game?
Malkin: They’re gonna be missing a number of starters is what it seems like. About four of the starters are questionable. The defensive end, Isaiahh Loudermilk, isn’t gonna be playing, which is a big loss because Wisconsin doesn’t have a great pass rush at all. He was one of those guys in the front three in the 3-4 defense that could put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Most importantly, though, in the secondary there’s a lot of guys on the injury report. Faion Hicks is questionable, D’Cota Dixon is questionable. They are both gonna play but they’re not 100 percent. Caesar Williams is probably not gonna play, he’s questionable, the starting cornerback. Scott Nelson is missing the first half because he was called for targeting at the end of the game against Nebraska. Deron Harrell, who is kind of a backup cornerback even though he got first-team snaps Saturday, is also questionable with a head injury.
I’m concerned about the secondary because, to me, the passing game is gonna be the difference in the game. It’s gonna come out to the play of Shea Patterson making long plays. The secondary is so beaten up and there’s a lot of young, inexperienced players and Wisconsin has already given up a number of big plays over the air so far this season. I have a feeling that that’s gonna be a difference in the game.
TMD: How do you assess Wisconsin opening as eight-point underdogs at Michigan?
Malkin: I understand why they made that the line. I personally think it’s gonna be a closer contest, between three and six (points). I project it’ll be a low-scoring game, a 24-20 kind of game. But then again, I can understand why the line is what it is. A touchdown is a pretty fair assessment, especially on the road, first night game of the year. And the stakes couldn’t be higher for both teams. For both of these teams, this is the difference between which team still has a chance to make the playoff and who doesn’t.
TMD: Last year, Wisconsin finished third in total defense. At the moment, it’s ranked 41st in the country. Was a decline expected? What do you attribute that slide to?
Malkin: I don’t think anyone was expecting the defense to be nearly as dominant and elite as it was last year. It was an unreasonable expectation given how much turnover they lost — pretty much their entire front three and starters in the secondary. I don’t think people expected them to be 41st. There was more optimism surrounding the secondary in training camp and all the coaches were raving about the corners and safeties, and not as much about the defensive line. … They expected the offense to be the aspect of the team that will carry it, but I definitely think they expected the pass defense to be a little bit better. The rush defense is still respectable. … Overall, not an elite defense, not even top-10, but maybe a top-20 program was expected.
TMD: Is there an offensive weapon not named Jonathan Taylor that you expect could break out on Saturday?
Malkin: Jonathan Taylor is what he is, and obviously that’ll be crucial for Wisconsin to win. But I actually think it’s probably gonna be a big game for Jake Ferguson, the starting tight end. My guess is that he’ll be the security blanket that Alex Hornibrook is gonna rely on for third down opportunities. Michigan is (a good) pass defense, they’ve held opponents to the fewest passing yards per game in the country, so you’re not going to rip off too many big plays off of them. Third down conversion defense, they’re good but not unbreakable. The tight end play will be really big and Jake Ferguson — he’s led Wisconsin in receiving yards two of their five games. He may be targeted a lot more against Michigan.
TMD: Who will have the better day between Alex Hornibrook and Shea Patterson?
Malkin: That’s tough. I think Shea Patterson is innately the more talented quarterback. He’s by far much more of a dual-threat, can scramble, mobile guy. Hornibrook’s not like that at all. I think Patterson will register more stats at the end of the day. He’s got a more explosive arm and can use his legs. I don’t think his completion percentage will be as good as Hornibrook, I think he’s a more accurate thrower on average. Not necessarily meaning that Hornibrook will complete more big play throws, but his percentage will be better. It’s hard to measure who will play better necessarily, but I do think Hornibrook will step up and play well on the road. He’s done it before, he doesn’t get fazed by pressure on the road. … If Michigan is gonna win, it’s gonna be on the play of their defense and not necessarily on Patterson making tremendous throws.
Malkin: I think the score will be 24-20 regardless of who wins. I believe in Wisconsin. Should they probably be favored? I don’t know, but I can see them still pulling out a win. It’ll be the hardest game of the year.