The Michigan football team is heading into a hostile environment this weekend. ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be on the scene when the 19th-ranked Wolverines get there, and they will be facing a top-five opponent.
This time, that hostile environment is Madison, where the fifth-ranked Badgers await.
And the outcome of Michigan’s next two contests could very well determine the entire perception of its season, as it searches for its first road win against a ranked opponent since 2006.
The Wolverines got a tune up against the likes of Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is the only team left in the Big Ten with an undefeated record, vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
One loss could all but extinguish those hopes for the Badgers. Here’s what to watch for as Michigan looks to derail Wisconsin’s playoff hopes Saturday.
There are a lot of things we’ve learned about Brandon Peters through the past three games. The redshirt freshman is unquestionably Michigan’s starter. He can manage a game well. And he has said that he can do anything the coaches ask of him in this offense.
The time has come to find out just how true that is.
Michigan’s run game has excelled in each of Peters’ meaningful games, averaging 288.3 yards through the last three contests with 10 touchdowns. Against Wisconsin, though, the Wolverines may find their first legitimate opposition to that run game.
The fifth-ranked Badgers boast the best rushing defense in the nation, allowing just 81.5 yards per game on the ground. For all the success Karan Higdon and company have had, Saturday could be the first time Peters is asked to legitimately win a game for Michigan.
“They are a very good defense,” said offensive coordinator Tim Drevno. “They’ve got a very solid front — they’re an odd front. They like to try to knock you back, the (linebackers) do a good job of flowing, the secondary is outstanding. If you’re looking for depth, I think they’re all juniors and seniors.”
It’s undoubtedly encouraging that Peters has yet to turn the ball over since taking over under center against Rutgers. But if Wisconsin does shut down the ground attack, taking care of the ball won’t be enough to escape Madison with an upset.
To state the obvious, Michigan’s offense hasn’t been able to start games with a bang.
Since facing Cincinnati on Sept. 9, the Wolverines have scored more than seven points in the first quarter only once.
With the exception of a matchup against then-No. 2 Penn State — during which the Nittany Lions scored 14 points in the first quarter — the Wolverines’ defense has managed to negate Michigan’s offensive flaw. And really, that’s been the story of the season.
But another test is on the horizon, one that this defensive unit may not be able to limit so easily. In running back Jonathan Taylor, the Badgers have the conference leader in rushing yards (1,525) and touchdowns (12).
The longer Michigan waits to counteract that offensive threat, the more likely it could hurt. If there were a time for the Wolverines to come out firing, this Saturday is it.
A one, a two, a 3-4
On Monday, fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler didn’t shy away from admitting that Wisconsin’s unconventional 3-4 defensive front will be a challenge for Michigan’s resurgent offensive line.
Drevno echoed that sentiment Wednesday, elaborating on the challenges the scheme may present.
“It’s a little bit different, and they play a traditional 3-4 where they’re a yard off the ball with those defensive linemen,” he said. “They’re trying to knock you back and free up the (linebackers). They’re trying to take away some different things on that front. So it’s unique.
“Most people that play that front want to move the front, so they start to slant themselves out of it and bring zone pressure trying to defeat your passing game and different things. But they’re trying to win it on the back end with the secondary and try to create some pass rushing, different things, gonna get to third down and bring some exotic looks.”
While the Wolverines’ offensive line has experienced a midseason renaissance of sorts, it is facing its biggest test of all Saturday — much like the quarterback it will be protecting.
The last straw
There was a time earlier this season when a small contingent of Michigan faithful took to Twitter, advocating for Quinn Nordin to be this year’s Heisman winner.
For the redshirt freshman kicker, that must feel like a long time ago.
With his miss from 31 yards against Maryland, Nordin has now failed to convert on a field goal attempt since Oct. 14 — missing two extra points in that same span.
The botched attempt against Maryland yielded an animated discussion between Nordin and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the sideline. And Harbaugh’s message was simple: start making them.
“He didn’t really snap back,” Harbaugh said. “I said to (Nordin), ‘I’m giving you one more shot. You’ve got to make the next one.’ And he said, ‘I got this. I will make the next one.’ ”
Nothing had changed in that regard by Monday, as Harbaugh reiterated his message to Nordin, albeit with more a more interesting expression.
“Strap on the iron jock,” he said, “and kick the ball through the uprights.”