When the Wisconsin football team knocked off then-No. 5 Louisiana State to open the 2016 season, it was only natural to start looking ahead toward its Week 5 visit to Ann Arbor.
And after the Badgers routed Michigan State in East Lansing last week, that game is now here, and it could be Michigan’s first game of Big Ten play with major conference title implications.
Here’s what to watch for when No. 4 Michigan and No. 8 Wisconsin take the field on Saturday:
1. Just how many Chris Borlands are there?
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh likened the Badgers to a team of Chris Borlands, a reference to the former All-American Badger and Harbaugh’s former linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers.
And while we’re dubious about Borland’s potential as a cover corner, Harbaugh’s point stands. Wisconsin’s defense is ranked 12th nationally (right behind Michigan) in total defense and seventh nationally in scoring defense.
Leading the way is their 10th-ranked rush defense, and for a Michigan team that is coming off a 326-yard performance against a porous Penn State team, that could be a wake-up call. Linebacker T.J. Watt, brother of J.J. Watt, is tied for eighth nationally in sacks, which should be enough to put a scare in Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight.
The Wolverines’ offensive line has made visible strides since 2013 and 2014, but the Badgers should put them to a very real test. What happens in the trenches when Michigan is on offense should go a long way toward deciding this game.
2. How, and how much, will Michigan use Jabrill Peppers?
Last season, Peppers didn’t play on offense until the Wolverines played Michigan State. This year, with the secret out, Michigan hasn’t had to keep his offensive abilities under wraps until its first big game.
So far this year, Peppers has just two rushes for 24 yards. But he has also been used as a decoy on a sweep and even split out as a receiver. His speed is at least as good as any of the Woverines’ running backs, and his playmaking ability is unmatched. Against Wisconsin, it makes sense that Michigan could need him to contribute heavily in all three phases.
He has already taken one punt to the house against Colorado, and he nearly did it again last week, so how often the Badgers even decide to kick to him will be worth watching. Then when you factor in his role as a hybrid linebacker on the Wolverines’ defense, it stands to reason that he could see his most snaps of the year if the game is close.
3. How often will Speight throw deep?
Last week, Speight’s longest completion of the season went for 25 yards to senior tight end Jake Butt, a significant departure from his willingness to throw deep against Central Florida.
Part of that could be based on need — why chuck it deep in a blowout? But this week, Michigan could find itself in a close contest, where throwing it deep is a necessity.
If that is the case, the Wolverines’ top downfield threat will need to re-emerge. Fifth-year senior receiver Jehu Chesson has had just one catch for 18 yards combined in the past two games.
4. Will Michigan’s D-line be back to full strength?
One week after the Wolverines got senior defensive end Taco Charlton and senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis back from injury, the defense could get another boost against Wisconsin.
Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone left the opener with an undisclosed injury, but both Harbaugh and defensive line coach Greg Mattison mentioned his return as a possibility for Saturday. Mattison said Mone has been practicing this week, and if he does indeed return, it would mark the first time this year that the Wolverines have their full rotation on the line.
Mone has routinely been praised for his impact in practices, but has seen limited game action due to injuries thus far in his career.
In a game that is expected to be decided in the trenches, his return couldn’t be more timely for Michigan.