After four weeks of having a clear advantage over its opponents in nearly every phase of the game, the No. 4 Michigan football team will finally face a challenge this weekend when No. 8 Wisconsin comes to Ann Arbor.
Not much was expected from the Badgers before the season — especially considering their current stretch features four straight games against the four best teams in the Big Ten last season, with three of those on the road. But Wisconsin surprised everyone by jumping out to a 4-0 start, knocking off then-No. 5 Louisiana State at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., and then-No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing and setting up a top-10 showdown with the Wolverines this weekend.
The Daily breaks down what should be the biggest game played at Michigan Stadium this season.
Michigan rush offense vs. Wisconsin rush defense
The Wolverines’ running backs had their best game of the season last week against Penn State, picking up 326 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Michigan’s stable of four running backs, led by senior De’Veon Smith, all found the end zone, making running back coach Tyrone Wheatley’s distribution of carries look ingenious.
Wisconsin has the pieces to stuff that run game, though, and it probably won’t need to pack the box to do so like Central Florida did three weeks ago. The Badgers have allowed just 3.2 yards per carry and only one rushing touchdown. They kept LSU’s Leonard Fournette out of the end zone and held the Spartans to just two field goals last week.
Michigan pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense
On paper, fifth-year senior wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh look to have an advantage against Wisconsin’s secondary. Both stand over 6 feet tall — and senior tight end Jake Butt checks in at 6-foot-6 — while Badgers cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal are 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11, respectively.
But size hasn’t hurt the Wisconsin duo so far, as they have combined for ten pass breakups this season, tied for the second-most by any teammates in the country. And with the Wolverines having won so many blowout games so far this season, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight hasn’t had to throw the deep ball too often yet.
Michigan certainly has the talent to win this matchup, but it won’t be easy.
Wisconsin rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Wisconsin’s Corey Clement is a very talented running back, but Michigan’s defense is on another level than most other teams in the country right now. The Wolverines lead the nation in tackles for loss with 44 — redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers has 9.5 by himself — and haven’t allowed many backs to get the best of them, save for a few big plays.
Case in point: running back Saquon Barkley was essentially the only functioning part of the Nittany Lions’ offense last week, both out of the backfield and as a pass catcher, and Michigan still limited him to 136 total yards and no touchdowns.
The Wolverines may even be more dangerous now that they are fully healthy — senior defensive end Taco Charlton (ankle) was back in the lineup last weekend, and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone (undisclosed leg injury) practiced this week and could make his return Saturday.
Wisconsin pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Wolverines’ secondary suffered a huge loss last week when fifth-year senior cornerback Jeremy Clark tore his anterior cruciate ligament, but it also welcomed back an All-American in senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Replacing Clark will take a concerted effort from redshirt sophomore Brandon Watson and freshmen David Long and Lavert Hill, but Michigan’s starting lineup remains strong. Lewis’ counterpart, senior Channing Stribling, was ranked as the best corner in the Big Ten by Pro Football Focus College Football before Lewis’ return.
The Wolverines will have to contend with wide receivers Jazz Peavy and Robert Wheelwright, both of whom have already eclipsed 200 receiving yards this season. And for the first time all season, they’ll also have to deal with a pass-catching tight end, Troy Fumagalli, who has 14 catches for 169 yards. New Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been very steady for a redshirt freshman, especially against Michigan State last week, but Lewis and Stribling present a difficult obstacle.
Peppers is quickly establishing a reputation as one of the best punt returners in the country, racking up an FBS-best 227 return yards and a touchdown. He very nearly took another punt to the house last week, but he stumbled in the red zone and had the play brought back because of sideline interference. Additionally, Michigan and Texas are the only two teams in the country to have blocked three kicks or punts.
On the opposing side, Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone is out for the season with a back injury after starting 7-for-8 on field goals (4-for-4 on kicks longer than 40 yards) and 10-for-10 on extra points. The Badgers rank in the middle of the pack in ESPN’s special teams efficiency (58th in the FBS), while the Wolverines rank second.
This is the first top-10 matchup in Ann Arbor since Michigan knocked off Ohio State in 2003, and the excitement among the Wolverines’ fan base has reached a fever pitch. Even though the team hasn’t faced a real challenge yet, Michigan is a Big Ten and national championship hopeful in the eyes of its fans and players alike.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has said that the team is treating every opponent like a top-10 team, but now it has a chance to beat a real one. The Wolverines haven’t faced Wisconsin since 2010, and it’s the first time that the two teams have ever met while both were ranked in the top 10. The Wolverines will need some quality wins to state their case for the playoff, so Saturday is a great time to start.
Prediction: Michigan 24, Wisconsin 17