After a six-year hiatus in meetings on the gridiron, Michigan and Wisconsin are set to clash this Saturday in Ann Arbor for an intriguing matchup of two top-10 teams. Conference realignment and Big Ten expansion is the main reason behind the lack of recent matchups between the Badgers and Wolverines. However, there’s plenty at stake this Saturday for what should be one of the top games in Week 5.
Wisconsin’s 4-0 start is one of the biggest surprises of the 2016 season. The Badgers entered the year with uncertainty at quarterback, question marks on the offensive line and a new defensive coordinator (Justin Wilcox). However, it looks like coach Paul Chryst has found the right answer at quarterback in redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, while the defense hasn’t meet a beat under Wilcox and was instrumental in wins over LSU and Michigan State. Wisconsin’s schedule is one of the toughest in the nation and won’t get any easier after Saturday’s game against Michigan. The Badgers have a bye next Saturday, followed by games against Ohio State, at Iowa and a home date against Nebraska to close out October.
Jim Harbaugh has Michigan poised to reclaim a spot among the nation’s best. After a 10-3 debut last fall, the Wolverines are off to a 4-0 start and were picked by some to reach the College Football Playoff this season. A strong defense under new coordinator Don Brown leads the way for Harbaugh’s team, but the offense is starting to hit its stride. Sophomore Wilton Speight seems to get better with each snap and is aided by a strong supporting cast. If Michigan gets by Wisconsin, Harbaugh’s team should be 7-0 headed into an Oct. 29 showdown against Michigan State.
Michigan holds a 49-14-1 series edge over Wisconsin. However, the Badgers have won four out of the last six matchups against the Wolverines, including a 48-28 victory in Ann Arbor in 2010.
Wisconsin at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Michigan -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Two Standout Defenses
There are a lot of similarities between these two programs in 2016. Michigan and Wisconsin both feature second-year coaches guiding their respective programs on the right track, two offenses that love to run the ball and an outstanding defenses.
Wisconsin’s defense hasn’t missed a beat under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in fewest points allowed per game (11.8) and limit opponents to 5.04 yards per play. Creating havoc around the line of scrimmage is another strength for this unit. Wisconsin has generated 11 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss so far in 2016. Linebackers Vince Biegel, T.J. Edwards, T.J. Watt and Jack Cichy form the strength of this defense, with cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal headlining a stingy secondary. However, this unit suffered a late setback on Thursday, as Biegel was ruled out for the next couple of weeks due to a foot injury. His absence is a huge setback to a linebacking corps that already lost Chris Orr for the 2016 season.
Michigan is just a tick behind Wisconsin on the stat sheet in scoring defense, as the Wolverines are giving up 13.8 points per contest. However, coordinator Don Brown’s defense ranks second among Big Ten defenses in fewest yards per play allowed (4.3). Michigan is strong at all three levels of its defense, starting in the trenches with a line that’s among the best in the nation. Chris Wormley, Rashan Gary and Ryan Glasgow headline the trenches, while (and all-purpose threat) Jabrill Peppers is a difference maker at linebacker. The secondary suffered a setback with the season-ending injury to cornerback Jeremy Clark. However, Jourdan Lewis returned from injury in last week’s win over Penn State and is one of the nation’s top lockdown cover corners.
Both of these defenses are stingy, good at creating turnovers and havoc around the line of scrimmage. Which unit will have the most success at controlling the opposing offense on Saturday?
2. Quarterback Play
Both teams entered the year with uncertainty at quarterback, but after the first month of 2016, all signs suggest the Badgers and Wolverines have found their starter. Wilton Speight edged John O’Korn for Michigan’s starting nod in the fall and is off to a good start. Through four games, Speight has completed 72 of 114 passes for 875 yards and nine scores. The only blemish on Speight’s early resume was a so-so performance (16 of 30 for 229 yards and one score) against Colorado. However, he hasn’t tossed an interception since the opener and averages 12.2 yards per completion. Considering Jim Harbaugh is one of the nation’s top quarterback coaches, Speight’s quick development isn’t a surprise.
Wisconsin’s quarterback derby between Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston was tight throughout fall camp, with the Badgers giving Houston (the upperclassman) the first snap against LSU. Houston threw for 205 yards (and two picks) in the win over the Tigers and was steady (15 of 22 for 231 yards) against Akron. However, he threw for only 91 yards against Georgia State and was pulled in favor of Hornibrook. The redshirt freshman provided a spark against the Panthers and started in last week’s win over Michigan State. The final tally showed Hornibrook completed 16 of 26 throws for 195 yards and one score against the Spartans. However, he played better than his numbers indicated for his first start in a tough environment.
Both quarterbacks have showed plenty of promise through the first month of the season. However, this game on Saturday is arguably the toughest test for both passers in 2016. Which one effectively manages the offense and limits the mistakes?
3. Establishing the Run
As mentioned above, both defenses are stingy. Needless to say, opportunities for both offenses could be tough to come by on Saturday afternoon. Even though both coaches have a strong track record of developing quarterbacks, the ground game is where it all starts on offense. Wisconsin ranks second in the Big Ten with 187 rush attempts so far, while Michigan (170) isn’t far behind. The Badgers are only averaging 3.9 yards per carry but have faced two standout run defenses (Michigan State and LSU). Wisconsin’s offensive line is usually one of the Big Ten’s best and is on the right track after an up-and-down 2015 season. This unit will face another tough test in trying to clear lanes against the Wolverines’ defense. Not only is the spotlight on the Badgers’ offensive line, the play of running back Corey Clement is also under the microscope. He rushed for 54 yards on 23 attempts in last week’s win after sitting out Week 3 due to injury. Assuming Clement is 100 percent, Wisconsin needs a better performance from their standout running back.
Jim Harbaugh isn’t afraid to spread the wealth in Michigan’s backfield. Through four games, four players have recorded at least 22 carries, including De’Veon Smith (6.64 ypc) and talented freshman Chris Evans (213 yards). Opportunities against Wisconsin’s defense (80.5 rush yards allowed per game) have been limited so far in 2016. Can Michigan win the battle up front on first and second down to keep the offense in third-and-short situations? If the Badgers contain the ground attack, that plays into Wilcox’s hands with the ability to bring pressure on third down and obvious passing situations.
Don’t expect a ton of fireworks by either offense on Saturday afternoon. Instead, this should be an old-school Big Ten slugfest between two standout defenses. Wisconsin is going to miss linebacker Vince Biegel, but there’s enough talent returning to keep this unit performing at a high level. The Badgers have forced nine takeaways through four games and need to win the turnover battle in order to pull off another upset. Additionally, redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook has to play a mistake-free game. Michigan is balanced on offense and the defense will make life difficult for the Wisconsin offense with its ability to win the battle at the point of attack. The Badgers stay in this game due to their defense, but Michigan’s offense makes just enough plays in the second half to secure the victory.