Ohio State is already looming. The talk about another matchup for a Big Ten Championship between the two rivals has begun.
But don’t let Wisconsin hear any of that banter. The Badgers are waiting for the Wolverines in a potential trip-up game before the big show on Nov. 17.
Wisconsin and Michigan both come in a little banged up, and some of the Wolverine faithful wouldn’t mind Michigan coach Lloyd Carr resting some of his ailing stars.
Still, a Big Ten game is important, or at least that’s what the Wolverine players would want you to believe.
Michigan rush offense vs. Wisconsin rush defense
Senior running back Mike Hart says he’ll be nearly 100 percent for this game, and that is good news for Wolverine fans who saw him rush for 110 yards in barely more than a half against Michigan State. Even if he’s not ready to carry the load, backups Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown have proven themselves capable, as long as they can get into the flow of the game.
The Wisconsin rush defense was one of the best in the Big Ten last season, and some expected it to be even better this year with many contributors returning. But it has fallen far short of expectations, ranking eighth in the conference by giving up nearly 150 yards per game on the ground. It allowed Ohio State running back Chris Wells to rush for 169 yards and three touchdowns last week. And with defensive tackle Jason Chapman out for the season, the unit might get even worse.
Michigan pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense
Chad Henne garnered Big Ten Player of the Week honors for his performance against Michigan State, and he estimated that he was at just 80 percent coming into the game. If his health improves as expected, he should be at full strength against the Badgers, which is a big positive for Michigan. Freshman Ryan Mallett has struggled in recent spot duty, fumbling and throwing interceptions when Henne has left games because of injury. Even if Mallett plays, though, the resurgence of Mario Manningham combined with the steady effectiveness of Adrian Arrington and Greg Mathews makes this a tough matchup for any defense.
Cornerback Jack Ikegwuono is still a star in the Badger secondary, which has played well this season. But his counterpart on the other side, cornerback Allen Langford, was injured against Ohio State last week and won’t play Saturday. Missing a starting cornerback against a multi-faceted attack like Michigan’s doesn’t bode well, even for the third-best pass defense in the Big Ten.
Michigan rush defense vs. Wisconsin rush offense
The Badgers’ offense starts and ends with running back P.J. Hill. Unfortunately, he didn’t play against the Buckeyes because of a bruised left leg. His availability for Saturday is unknown, and the Wisconsin running game takes a big hit if Hill can’t go. His backup is freshman Zach Brown, who managed just more than three yards per carry against Ohio State last week.
But the Wolverines struggled last week against a power rushing attack, allowing almost 190 rushing yards in the second half alone. Much of that was gained on one run, but Michigan State running back Jehuu Caulcrick’s running style strongly resembles Hill’s, and Caulcrick pounded the Michigan defense mercilessly in the second half.
Edge: Wisconsin (if Hill plays)
Michigan pass defense vs. Wisconsin pass offense
The Wolverine secondary must have loved to see this stretch of the schedule finally arrive. Gone are the four wide-receiver sets and the empty backfields, and in are the I-formations. Just like Michigan State last weekend, Wisconsin will look to move the ball on the ground, and the Michigan secondary will have to guard against play-action. Working in the Wolverines’ favor is the Badgers’ lack of depth and talent at wide receiver. Star wideout Luke Swan was lost for the season a couple of weeks ago, and quarterback Tyler Donovan has rarely tested the aerial attack this year, and if he does, Donovan’s looking for his tight end Travis Beckum who has more than 700 yards receiving this season.
If this game were in the Big House, Michigan would dominate this category. However, punter Zoltan Mesko has struggled in big road games. He didn’t have a very good performance in Happy Valley a year ago and had just one good boot last weekend against Michigan State. The Wolverines will need Mesko to win the battle of field position, especially in raucous atmosphere of Camp Randall.
The battles of the kickers will be a little more interesting. Taylor Mehlhaff has gone 15-for-17 for the Badgers while K.C. Lopata has kicked a perfect 8-for-8. Neither team has had anyone really emerge in the return game, even though Mathews has shown spurts of explosiveness returning punts for Michigan.
It’s hard to say if Michigan will come out with the intensity it needs to win this tough road game. In the complete scheme of the Big Ten Championship picture, the Wolverines don’t have to win in Camp Randall. Still, the upperclassmen remember coming into Madison two years ago and losing their Big Ten opener. That might prove to be enough motivation, but Wisconsin has more riding on a home win. The Badgers have stumbled down the road, and win against Michigan always helps to ease the pain.