Michigan and Wisconsin meet in Madison on Saturday for a huge showdown in the Big Ten opener for both teams. The Badgers and Wolverines are both off to a 2-0 start and had an off week last Saturday. Last year’s meeting was won handily (38-13) by Michigan, but all signs point to a much closer matchup in Week 4.
Although Jim Harbaugh has won at least 10 games in three out of his four years in Ann Arbor, there’s something missing on his resume: a Big Ten title. The Wolverines should be in the mix to win the conference once again this fall and were projected by some to win it in 2019. So far, the early results are a mixed bag for Harbaugh. The fifth-year coach hired Josh Gattis from Alabama to call plays and implement more spread/up-tempo looks this season. Michigan rolled to a 40-21 victory against MTSU in the opener but needed overtime to knock off Army in Week 2. Two weeks is a small sample size, but the Wolverines are still a work in progress on offense. The off date last Saturday was a good opportunity for this unit to regroup, especially with a trip to Madison this week and looming matchups against Penn State, Iowa and Notre Dame in October.
Wisconsin’s 8-5 mark last season represented the program’s first year of fewer than double-digit victories under coach Paul Chryst. The Badgers won 13 games in 2017 and finished No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll, but due to injuries at quarterback and turnover on defense, the team slipped to eight wins the following year. Wisconsin appears to be back on track in 2019. Running back Jonathan Taylor is averaging 6.8 yards per rush, quarterback Jack Coan has been efficient, and the defense hasn’t allowed a point in two games. After shutting out USF and Central Michigan in the first two weeks of the season, the test will certainly get tougher with the Wolverines on tap this Saturday.
Michigan holds a 51-15-1 series edge over Wisconsin. As mentioned previously, the Wolverines won 38-13 in Ann Arbor last year. However, the Badgers have won four in a row against Michigan in Madison.
Michigan at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at Noon ET
Spread: Wisconsin -3.5
When Michigan Has the Ball
Michigan ranked second in the Big Ten last season by averaging 35.2 points a game. While that’s enough production to win a lot of games, it wasn’t enough for Harbaugh. In an effort to add more tempo and utilize the playmakers in space, he handed the keys on offense to Josh Gattis. The former Wake Forest defensive back is considered a coach on the rise and will have to grow into the offensive coordinator role since this is his first opportunity to call plays.
So far, the results on Gattis’ offense are mixed. Michigan has showed flashes of promise but is only averaging 5.2 yards a play and 32 points a game. The Wolverines averaged 5.8 yards a snap in the opener against MTSU but dipped to 4.5 in Week 2 versus Army.
Is this the week the pieces fall into place for Gattis? Michigan has struggled with turnovers (five fumbles lost) and needs to connect on a few big plays (none of 40 or more yards this season) in the passing game. Quarterback Shea Patterson is completing 62.1 percent of his throws but did not look sharp in the win over Army. The senior was reportedly dealing with an oblique injury, which could also explain why he looked tentative on read plays against the Black Knights. Michigan isn’t hurting for talent at receiver, but No. 1 target Donovan Peoples-Jones has yet to play this year due to injury. It’s uncertain if he will be able to go on Saturday. Assuming Peoples-Jones is sidelined again, Tarik Black (seven catches), Ronnie Bell (nine) and Nico Collins (five) will be the top playmakers on the outside.
Although Harbaugh and Gattis want to utilize tempo and spread things out more on offense, Michigan isn’t going to forget about running game. True freshman Zach Charbonnet is off to a fast start, rushing for 190 yards and three scores in his first two games on campus. Christian Turner and Tru Wilson will also contribute on the ground.
Michigan’s offensive line came into 2019 picked as one of the best units in the Big Ten, but this group is off to a slow start. The Wolverines have allowed six sacks and are only generating 3.8 yards a rush. This group could have reinforcements on the way this Saturday. Left tackle Jon Runyan could return after missing the first two games due to injury. Wisconsin’s rush defense has been stingy, limiting teams to 0.93 yards a carry and just 20.5 yards a game. Nose tackle Bryson Williams won’t play due to injury, which means freshman Keeanu Benton will get the call on the interior for the Badgers.
When these two units are on the field, it’s a matchup of an offense looking to find the next gear against a defense that has pitched back-to-back shutouts versus questionable competition. Wisconsin hasn’t allowed a play of 20 yards or more and leads the Big Ten in third-down defense. Michigan will be the toughest test of the season for the Badgers, but Harbaugh’s group also has to contend with its own question marks – penalties, turnovers, consistency out of the quarterback and receivers and pass protection – in order to successfully move the ball on Saturday.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
It’s no secret what Wisconsin wants to do on offense. The Badgers have arguably the nation’s best running back in Jonathan Taylor, along with one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines. Center Tyler Biadasz will be coveted in the NFL Draft, and left tackle Cole Van Lanen was a breakout pick entering 2019. While the line has three new starters, this unit isn’t lacking for experience and has played well through the first two games. Taylor is averaging 6.8 per carry and has gashed opponents for 237 yards and five touchdowns. The junior worked to improve as a pass catcher this offseason and that has paid off with five catches for 65 yards and three scores.
Michigan’s defense entered the year looking to replace a handful of standouts, including linebacker Devin Bush and linemen Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. Even though this defense had voids to address at every level, the Wolverines are holding teams to just 21 points a game and 4.03 yards a snap in 2019. In other words, coordinator Don Brown already has Michigan’s defense trending in the right direction and poised to once again rank among the best in college football.
Although the defense certainly hasn’t been an issue for the Wolverines in the first two games, Wisconsin will provide a stiff test for a rebuilt line. Through two games, Michigan’s run defense is giving up 133.5 yards a game and three yards per carry. The interior of the line is going to be tested frequently by Taylor and the Badgers’ front. Can the Wolverines keep Taylor in check and make the offense operate out of third-and-long all night?
Wisconsin only has one play of 40 or more yards this season, but coach Paul Chryst’s group methodically works its way down the field. Although Taylor is the focal point of the attack, quarterback Jack Coan is off to a strong start. The junior is completing 76.3 percent of his passes for 564 yards and five touchdowns to zero picks. Coan held off talented freshman Graham Mertz for the starting nod in fall practice and has effectively distributed the ball to a handful of key targets. The return of Quintez Cephus (18.8 ypc) has added a big-play element to the receiving corps. A.J. Taylor (eight catches), Kendric Pryor (six), Danny Davis (six) and tight end Jake Ferguson (six) round out the key targets for Coan.
Anytime a team plays Wisconsin, winning in the trenches is a must. Michigan has only four sacks through two games, but that number is skewed a bit by playing Army in Week 2. The Badgers want to establish Taylor and let Coan attack the field with favorable down and distances. Hitting on a few big plays downfield to Cephus would certainly divert some of the attention off Taylor. Can the Wolverines win up front and stuff Taylor? Or will Wisconsin’s offensive line win the day and allow Taylor to easily eclipse 100 yards?
This matchup is a perfect barometer game for both teams. Wisconsin has been nearly perfect through its first two games of the season, but the competition will get significantly tougher this Saturday versus Michigan. The Wolverines have played a tougher schedule, but Harbaugh’s team needs to prove it can live up to the hype of being a preseason Big Ten title contender. Picking against Wisconsin at home isn’t easy. However, the guess here is improved health by Patterson helps Michigan’s offense connect on a few more plays downfield, including one in the fourth quarter that sets up the winning score.