After clinching the Big Ten’s West Division title in last week’s game against Iowa, Wisconsin has its sights set on a CFB Playoff berth, but the Badgers still have a few hurdles to clear, starting with Saturday’s matchup against Michigan. College football’s Week 12 slate isn’t overflowing with great matchups, and this showdown in Madison at noon ET between two of the Big Ten’s best programs is likely to be the best game on Saturday.
Coach Paul Chryst’s team has been on a steady rise in the CFB Playoff rankings over the last three weeks. Wisconsin ranked ninth in the first release, climbed to eighth in the second version and checked in at No. 5 on Tuesday night. Needless to say, any doubt about an undefeated Wisconsin team and the CFB Playoff is over. If the Badgers win out, this team will be in the four-team playoff. After playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules in 2016, Wisconsin’s 2017 slate is the reason why this team has struggled to gain any traction in the CFB Playoff rankings. The Badgers best non-conference win came against FAU in Week 2, while BYU – a team not used to losing seasons in recent years – is just 3-8. Additionally, in conference play, Wisconsin missed Ohio State and Penn State in crossover play. While the hunt for national respect will continue into Saturday and into the Big Ten Championship, the Badgers continue to win behind a familiar formula: Defense and running the ball.
In his third season at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh is 28-8 overall and 18-6 in Big Ten play. Additionally, with two wins in the remainder of the 2017 campaign, the Wolverines would have posted three consecutive 10-win seasons. Not bad at all. Of course, Harbaugh was brought in to win Big Ten titles and compete for the CFB Playoff. This team just missed out on the division title after an overtime loss to Ohio State last year. But with a significant amount of roster turnover in the offseason, 2017 is a reloading year for the Wolverines. This team opened the season with a convincing win over Florida and was 4-0 before stumbling 14-10 in a rain-soaked night in Ann Arbor to rival Michigan State. Michigan also lost at Penn State (42-13) but has reeled off three consecutive victories since that defeat.
Michigan holds a 50-14-1 series edge over Wisconsin. The Wolverines won last year’s meeting 14-7 in Ann Arbor. However, the Badgers have won three out of the last five in this series. Michigan’s last win in Madison took place in 2001.
Michigan at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at Noon ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Wisconsin -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan’s Offense Versus Wisconsin’s Defense
This matchup might be the biggest factor in how Saturday’s game is decided. Michigan’s offense is averaging only 27.9 points a game – down from the 40.3 mark that led the Big Ten last fall. The Wolverines are also averaging 5.5 yards per play and rank near the bottom of the conference in passing offense and third-down conversions. Considering this is Harbaugh’s area of expertise, Michigan’s struggles on this side of the ball have been a mild surprise.
What’s to blame for Michigan’s offensive issues? A combination of factors are in play. The offensive line has struggled during Harbaugh’s tenure and is still searching to find the right mix. The Wolverines have allowed 27 sacks, which ranks among the worst in the Big Ten. In addition to the offensive line, quarterback play and the passing attack in general has been an issue. Wilton Speight opened 2017 as the starter but was injured against Purdue, opening the door for John O’Korn to take over. O’Korn threw four picks over the next four games and failed to spark the passing attack during that stretch. He was benched versus Rutgers in favor of Brandon Peters, and the redshirt freshman has proceeded to start the last two games. Peters has provided a spark (329 yards and 4 TDs to 0 INTs) but has yet to play a defense of Wisconsin’s caliber. One other factor in play for Michigan’s offense has been the lack of proven options at receiver. Tight end Jake Butt and receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson departed for the NFL, and the rebuilding process was hindered after Tarik Black was lost for the year due to injury.
While the offensive line and passing game are a work in progress, Michigan’s offense is still one of the best in the Big Ten in rushing. The Wolverines average 207.8 yards per game and have eclipsed the 300-yard mark on the ground two times (Rutgers and Minnesota). Karan Higdon (854 yards), Chris Evans (569) and Ty Isaac (548) will each get their share of opportunities on Saturday.
Considering the road environment, plus the strength of Wisconsin’s defense, Harbaugh isn’t going to place this game solely on Peters. However, will Michigan’s offense have much of a choice? The Badgers lead the Big Ten by limiting opponents to just 13.4 points a game and in fewest yards per play (4.2). Additionally, this unit ranks first against the run (81.5 ypg allowed) and in sacks generated (35). As if those numbers weren’t enough, Wisconsin isn’t giving up many big plays and only one opponent has managed to score more than 20 points in 2017.
Can Michigan win the battle in the trenches, get the running game on track and open up play action for Peters downfield? Considering the limitations of the passing attack, staying out of third-and-long situations is a must. If the Wolverines can, there’s a good shot Harbaugh’s team leaves Madison with a victory. If not, it’s tough to see Michigan finding a path to a win.
2. Michigan’s Run Defense Against Jonathan Taylor
While Harbaugh is still putting together the pieces on offense, the defense certainly hasn’t been an issue. Michigan ranks third in the Big Ten against the run, limiting opponents to just 110.3 yards per game. Also, this unit is allowing just 3.3 yards per carry.
The front seven is the strength of coordinator Don Brown’s defense and should be a tough matchup for Wisconsin’s standout offensive line. The Badgers have an injury concern to monitor, as center Tyler Biadasz is questionable due to an ailment suffered against Iowa. Regardless of whether or not Biadasz starts, the interior of the Badgers’ line will have its hands full against Michigan tackle Maurice Hurst (12.5 TFL), along with ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. At linebacker, Devin Bush is having a breakout season, registering 82 stops through 10 contests.
Few teams have found a way to contain Wisconsin’s ground game this year, which is anchored by true freshman Jonathan Taylor. The Badgers have just two games of less than 215 rushing yards this season. Taylor didn’t start the opener against Utah State but quickly assumed the No. 1 role in Week 2. The freshman has recorded 1,525 yards and 12 touchdowns on 219 attempts and has the best per-carry average (6.96) of any player in the Big Ten with 200 or more carries.
It’s no secret Taylor is the catalyst for Wisconsin’s offense. Will the Badgers’ offensive line create enough running lanes for Taylor to hit 100 or more yards on Saturday? Getting Taylor on track is essential to take some of the pressure off of Hornibrook and keep the offense in manageable down and distance. For Michigan, the objective on defense has to be pretty simple: Keep Taylor in check and force the passing game to win it.
3. Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook
With a strong defense and powerful rushing attack on his side, Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook hasn’t had to win many games with his arm this season. The sophomore has just one game of more than 250 passing yards and ranks seventh among Big Ten quarterbacks by averaging 186.3 yards a game. The promising sophomore has been accurate and efficient (64.1 percent completion rate) and has landed his share of deep connections (11 of 30 yards or more). However, turnovers have been an issue for Hornibrook in 2017. He’s tossed 12 picks on just 206 attempts, including three (two that were returned for a score) in last week’s win over Iowa.
Wisconsin played in just two games where the final score was decided by 10 points or less. With that in mind, Hornibrook’s interceptions haven’t been a problem for the Badgers. But in a tight game, a turnover (or two) could be costly. Another concern for Hornibrook and coach Paul Chryst has to be the receivers on the outside. Quintez Cephus (30 catches) was ruled out for the year due to a leg injury, and Jazz Peavy (five catches) is out for Saturday’s game and not with the team at this time. That leaves tight end Troy Fumagalli (33 catches) as the primary option, with Danny Davis (12), A.J. Taylor (15) and Kendric Pryor (seven) as the top targets at receiver.
Michigan will counter Hornibrook and the passing attack with a pass rush that’s generated 33 sacks and a secondary ranked second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. Will Hornibrook connect on enough throws to keep the defense from loading up the box? And can he avoid tossing a pick for the first time since Sept. 16 in a game?
There are many similarities between these two teams. On offense, both programs want to establish the run and take advantage of play action downfield. And on defense, both units want to attack the line of scrimmage, stuff the run and keep the offense in third-and-long situations. Considering both teams are going to win their share of battles in the trenches and neither has a prolific passing game, a tight matchup that goes deep into the fourth quarter should be expected. If Michigan can generate a couple of takeaways and allow Peters to keep the Wisconsin defense off balance with some early throws, Harbaugh’s team has a good shot at the upset. However, with this game in Madison and more weapons in the passing game for Chryst, the Badgers find a way to win in the fourth quarter.