Wisconsin travels to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan in a key Big Ten showdown for one of the must-see matchups of college football’s Week 7 slate. Both the Badgers and Wolverines have already suffered a loss in non-conference play, so it’s likely both teams have to win out in order to have a shot at the CFB Playoff. The loser of this game is likely to be eliminated from the playoff picture but could still reach the Big Ten title game in December.
Michigan’s 2018 season started with a loss in South Bend to Notre Dame, but coach Jim Harbaugh’s team has rebounded with five straight victories. The Wolverines have defeated Western Michigan, SMU, Nebraska, Northwestern and Maryland in this winning streak, so Saturday night’s matchup against Wisconsin will be a step up in competition.
Wisconsin started its 2018 season better than Michigan, as coach Paul Chryst’s team defeated WKU in the opener, followed by New Mexico in Week 2. However, the Badgers were upset 24-21 by BYU on Sept. 15. Wisconsin has won its last two contests, beating Iowa 28-17 on the road and defeating Nebraska 41-24 in Madison.
Michigan holds a commanding 50-15-1 series edge over Wisconsin. However, the Badgers have claimed three out of the last four in this series, including a 24-10 victory in Madison last year.
Wisconsin at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Michigan -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Wisconsin’s Offensive Line and Ground Attack
It’s a matchup of strength versus strength when Wisconsin’s offensive line meets Michigan’s defensive front.
The starting five for the Badgers’ offensive line ranked as the best in college football this preseason, with center Tyler Biadasz, guard Beau Benzschawel and tackle David Edwards in contention for All-America honors in 2018. Wisconsin’s offensive line has allowed only eight sacks through five games and is clearing the way for rushers to average 6.2 yards per carry – the best mark among teams in the Big Ten. The main benefactor of that blocking is running back Jonathan Taylor. After rushing for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, Taylor has 849 yards and eight touchdowns through five matchups in 2018. In last year’s game between these two teams, Taylor recorded 132 yards on 19 carries.
Michigan can counter Taylor and the standout Wisconsin offensive line with a front that’s one of the best in college football. This unit has allowed only 96.5 rushing yards a game and is limiting opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry. Additionally, Michigan’s pass rush is led by standout rusher Chase Winovich, who has recorded three sacks to pace the defense in 2018. However, the Wolverines are dealing with some injuries up front, so depth could be an issue. Standout end Rashan Gary did not play in last week’s win over Maryland and is questionable to play on Saturday. Additionally, the status of tackles Aubrey Solomon, Michael Dwumfour and Carlo Kemp is uncertain. Kemp started five games at tackle, and if he’s unable to go, there’s added pressure on Bryan Mone, Aidan Hutchinson, Donovan Jeter, Kwity Paye and Lawrence Marshall to help anchor the interior of the defensive line. In addition to the talent up front, the Wolverines feature two of the nation’s top linebackers in Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson. Bush’s presence at middle linebacker will be key in keeping Taylor in check on Saturday.
Considering Michigan’s injuries up front, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wisconsin and Taylor have success running on Saturday night. However, can the Wolverines limit the overall damage and prevent the sophomore from breaking off big runs? If Michigan is going to win, it has to win the battle up front and prevent the Badgers from leaning too heavily on Taylor and getting into third-and-short situations.
Related: College Football Week 7 Predictions
2. Michigan’s Offense
With every snap he takes this season, Shea Patterson appears to be getting more comfortable with Jim Harbaugh’s offense. The Ole Miss transfer started the year by throwing for 227 yards and a pick in the loss at Notre Dame but has rebounded over the last five games. Patterson threw for 282 yards (his best mark of 2018) against Maryland last week. The junior heads into Saturday night’s matchup with 1,187 passing yards and 10 touchdowns to just three picks. Additionally, he’s completed 68.8 percent of his throws. But what separates Patterson from other Michigan quarterbacks under Harbaugh has been his mobility and ability to throw on the run. Patterson has accumulated just 31 rushing yards, but the stats don’t tell the full story, as the junior has been adept making throws off the run or on roll outs.
Patterson’s go-to target was expected to be Tarik Black, but he’s been sidelined since the start of 2018 due to a foot injury. With Black out due to injury, tight end Zach Gentry (20 catches), Nico Collins (14) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (18) have emerged as Patterson’s top weapons on the outside.
Harbaugh wants to use the ground game to set the table on offense, and the line has made progress after a rough start to the season against Notre Dame. Michigan is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, with Karan Higdon (582 yards) entrenched as the No. 1 back. Chris Evans has missed the last three games due to injury but is expected to return on Saturday night. Wisconsin’s defense is holding teams to 4.4 yards per carry but ranks sixth in the Big Ten by giving up 130.2 yards per game.
Wisconsin ranks 72nd nationally in pass efficiency defense, which is a significant step back from last year’s group, which finished first nationally in this department. The Badgers entered 2018 with a major rebuilding effort at all three levels of the defense, and coordinator Jim Leonhard is still piecing together this group after six games. Wisconsin is giving up 6.1 yards per play but ranks second in the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 16.4 points a game.
Similar to Michigan, Wisconsin is dealing with its share of injuries on defense this week. End Isaiahh Loudermilk is out due to a leg injury, while linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and cornerbacks Caesar Williams and Deron Harrell are listed as questionable.
3. Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook
Michigan’s defense is strong on all three levels, with the secondary leading the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense this season. The Wolverines have allowed just four passing scores, with none coming over the last three games. Additionally, this unit gave up three of its touchdowns versus SMU and has held three opponents to less than 100 passing scores.
With Michigan likely to focus on stopping Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, the focus of the offense could shift to quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Can the junior connect on enough throws to keep the Wolverines from stacking the box? Hornibrook has made progress as a passer over the last two seasons and has connected on 64 percent of his throws for 963 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018. A.J. Taylor (18 catches) has been Hornibrook’s favorite target, with tight end Jake Ferguson (16) emerging as a key weapon. Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis round out the other options for Hornibrook in the receiving corps.
In last year’s game, Hornibrook connected on just nine of 19 attempts for 143 yards and a touchdown. However, one of those plays was a 51-yard strike to Taylor, which led to a touchdown later in the drive in the third quarter.
The formula for Michigan’s defense is pretty simple: Stop Taylor and force Hornibrook to beat you through the air. Can the junior deliver against the toughest defense faced so far in the 2018 season?
Michigan has been trending in the right direction and getting better every week after losing to Notre Dame in the opener. Wisconsin rebounded from its loss to BYU by going on the road and winning in a tough road environment at Iowa. Additionally, with both teams needing to win out to have a shot at the CFB Playoff, there’s no shortage of storylines to watch on Saturday night. The Wolverines may not keep Taylor in check all night, but Harbaugh’s defense does just enough. The difference in the game will be the play of Patterson and Michigan’s offense against a rebuilding Wisconsin defense.