If you like strong defenses, great offensive line play, and two teams who should never put the ball in the air, this is the game for you between the No. 14 Michigan Wolverines (4-0) and the Wisconsin Badgers (1-2).
Not throwing the ball worked out for one team last weekend with the Wolverines as they defeated Rutgers 20-13, though nobody was happy with the second-half performance on the Michigan side. The offense went three-and-out on its first four series after halftime and finished with just 42 yards in the final 30 minutes. Strong play from the defense helped preserve the victory and undefeated start for the Wolverines, but some of the preseason question marks surrounding this team that were masked in the first three weeks started to arise again as the Wolverines look towards October.
As for the Badgers, it was as disastrous a fourth quarter that a team could have won last weekend against Notre Dame as they were outscored 31-3, including two pick-sixes from quarterback Graham Mertz that blew the game wide open. The loss to the Irish marked the seventh straight contest in which Wisconsin fell to a ranked opponent, but the Badgers will have another shot at ending that streak with the No. 14 Wolverines rolling into Madison — a place they haven't won at since 2001.
No. 14 Michigan at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan -1
When Michigan Has the Ball
So that's what happens when the Wolverines can't dominate their opponent on the ground? After averaging 350 yards per game rushing through the first three weeks, Michigan finally took on an opponent that loaded the box in Rutgers, forcing quarterback Cade McNamara to beat them. Results weren't pretty as the Wolverines rushed for just 112 yards total and nearly blew a 17-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Head coach Jim Harbaugh wasn't satisfied with the performance but doesn't mind much about how attractive the game was as long as the outcome is a win. "It wasn't pretty," Harbaugh said. "When they start making a space for pretty on the scoreboard, we'll worry about that."
It's time to start worrying this week if you're Harbaugh because running room will be difficult to come by while facing the nation's No. 1 defense in the Badgers, who have allowed just 69 total rushing yards in three games. Notre Dame ran the ball 32 times last Saturday, resulting in all of three yards. If there is a group to combat the Wisconsin rush defense, it would be the Michigan offensive line, who is playing about as well as any group in the country through the first month, allowing just a single sack through the first four games and helped the Wolverines average 290.8 rushing yards per contest.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
There are more issues on the Wisconsin offense aside than just Mertz, but the quarterback will always be front and center, especially when he turns the ball over five times in a blowout loss. Over the last eight games, Mertz has thrown just three touchdowns to 12 interceptions and has not looked comfortable in the pocket against high-level opponents like Notre Dame. Turnovers aren't the only problem, either, as Mertz missed at least two throws against the Irish that would have gone for touchdowns had he connected on them. Mertz will have another challenge this week against a Michigan secondary that is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 55 percent of their throws and for 172 yards per game through the air.
As mentioned, this isn't all on the quarterback either. Although Mertz was sacked officially just once against the Irish, he was under duress for much of the contest. There was no support from the Wisconsin rushing attack that averaged just 2.7 yards a carry between Chez Mellusi and Jalen Berger. Wide receivers were dropping passes. Everything that could go wrong in the fourth quarter… did. While the Wolverines have excelled defending the pass, they've allowed over four yards a carry in each of the last two weeks, so might be an opportunity for Wisconsin to re-establish their identity on the ground.
Early-season momentum is certainly with the Wolverines entering Saturday's contest, but this is a matchup that will force Michigan out of their comfort zone. Not just because they haven't won in Madison in 20 years, but because this Wisconsin run defense is allowing nothing on the ground to this point and will make McNamara beat them with his arm. This game will be decided on how many game-changing plays Mertz makes, both good and bad.
Prediction: Wisconsin 23, Michigan 20
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.