The non-conference season is over, and so are most of the up-tempo spread attacks. The Michigan football team’s game against No. 8 Wisconsin on Saturday will feature lots of rushing, lots of physicality and lots of huddles.
The Wolverines haven’t played the Badgers since 2010, but their opponent hasn’t changed much since then (except for two head coaching switches). Wisconsin is still a big, bruising team focused on the power rushing game and stout defense.
“Smashmouth — that’s just about the one word I could use to describe them and the problems that they bring,” said Michigan redshirt sophomore defensive end Chase Winovich. “They’re physical. I think they have like five tight ends that are over (250) pounds. They got some beef, so we got our hands full.”
Michigan coasted through the first four weeks of its season-opening five-week homestand. The fourth-ranked Wolverines crushed Hawaii, flew past Central Florida, upended Colorado and steamrolled Penn State. The latter three teams each attempted to outrun Michigan with no-huddle offenses, but the Wolverines caught up to each at one point or another.
The Badgers present an entirely different challenge, and it will be the toughest Michigan has faced this season. They match the Wolverines pound for pound up front.
“I’m wondering if the field’s going to be wide enough,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “They play extremely hard — run, effort. I had the pressure of coaching (former Wisconsin star) Chris Borland a few years back (with the San Francisco 49ers), and it’s a team of Chris Borlands. High, high energy, tough guys that can run and (a) big, physical team.”
With each of Michigan’s first three opponents, though, the Wolverines could say the visiting team had not seen a team of their caliber, at least this season. For Wisconsin, that is not the case. The Badgers have conquered one of the toughest schedules in the country this season.
They stifled then-No. 5 Louisiana State, 16-14, in the season opener at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. Last week, they routed then-No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing, 30-6, and took the Spartans’ spot in the poll. As if that weren’t enough, they will host No. 2 Ohio State after a bye next week. Considering that gauntlet, some didn’t circle this weekend’s game on Michigan’s schedule, four weeks before the Wolverines open a five-game stretch that includes showdowns against Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.
But the early success of both teams has made this game crucial. The winner will stay in good position to make the College Football Playoff, and the loser will have some work to do to reach the Big Ten Championship. And while the Wolverines refused to place extra value on this game, as usual, they did say the challenge of a top-10 team excites them.
“They present stuff that we either need to do better with or prove ourselves with, and we’re excited for it. I can’t wait,” Winovich said. “As a defense, I’m sure everyone’s gonna be buzzing around this week to study for this opportunity. This is the first real shot to get to prove ourselves against another top-10 team.”
As many good teams as both schools have fielded this century, this will be their first matchup with both squads ranked in the top 10. The Wolverines are 49-14-1 in the series and 4-1 when both teams are ranked, though Wisconsin has won four of the past six meetings.
In 2009 and 2010, the Badgers averaged 46.5 points and 293 rushing yards with their physical rushing attack, winning both games by double digits. In 2008, the Wolverines had to rally from a 19-0 halftime deficit to win a 27-25 stunner.
In each of those three games, Wisconsin unleashed a pairing of potent running backs: P.J. Hill and John Clay in 2008, Clay and Montee Ball in 2009, Ball and James White in 2010. This year, Corey Clement heads the Badgers’ ground game, rushing for 251 yards and five touchdowns in three games while missing one with an injury.
The key to this year’s game should be whether Clement can move the ball on first and second down against Michigan’s defense. Typical of many Wisconsin teams, the Badgers boast a consistent offense, ranking third in the country in time of possession at 37 minutes per game. The more they can string together long drives, the more success they should have.
But if the Wolverines are as strong on first and second down as they have been all season, they’ll have a chance to unleash their blitz on third down, when they have allowed their opponents to convert just six of 50 chances (12 percent). The battle in the trenches will be the difference.
“Whenever you’re playing a very physical opponent and a very good opponent, then yeah, there’s an opportunity to show what you can do out there as a football player,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve always believed that. Good football players, it’s kind of why they get together for games — good football players going against each other to show who the best is.”
It should surprise no one what Harbaugh said next:
“That’s the best thing about football, that competition.”