This year hasn't been great for many, but it's beginning to fall off the rails for the Wolverines (1-2), losers of two straight following a 38-21 defeat to Indiana last week, the first victory for the Hoosiers in that matchup since 1987. The once-vaunted Michigan defense has been an utter disaster, allowing 909 total yards of offense in the last two games, with quarterbacks Michael Penix Jr. and Rocky Lombardi throwing for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns each.
The Badgers (1-0) will be back in action after a three-week interruption of their season following a COVID-19 outbreak and hope to replicate their first performance when they soundly defeated Illinois 45-7 in the opener. It was a near-perfect outing in the first career start for redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. But, a mere two days later, the most 2020 thing ever happened — Mertz tested positive for COVID-19. The Badgers could be without upwards of 17 players as they travel to Ann Arbor this weekend.
Wisconsin at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -4.5
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
Mertz's playing status for Saturday continues to be the hot-button topic for Saturd as he approaches the end of the Big Ten's 21-day mandatory layoff after testing positive for COVID-19. Mertz reportedly tested positive on Oct. 24, meaning his 21 days would (coincidentally) end on Saturday, making him eligible to play the Wolverines. Backup Chase Wolf also tested positive for COVID-19, but there hasn't been a public report as to which day that occurred on, so the Badgers could be forced to resort to third-stringer Danny Vanden Boom.
In year's past, it never really mattered much who the Wisconsin QB was since the Badgers could typically ground-and-pound defenses with a stud running back. Not the case in 2020, as Wisconsin struggled to run the ball against Illinois, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. For all of the troubles that Michigan has had the last two games in stopping the pass, they've been stout against the run, allowing just 3.14 yards per carry.
Should Mertz play, the Badgers will test this Michigan secondary that is allowing 287.3 yards per game through the air — 104th in the country. Wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor are a formidable duo, and Wisconsin has one of the best tight ends in the conference in Jake Ferguson, who had three touchdowns in the win over Illinois.
When Michigan Has the Ball
The key to Michigan's impressive opening-week victory over Minnesota was the play of the offensive line, which kept quarterback Joe Milton clean for most of the night and allowed the Wolverines to rush for 256 yards and six touchdowns. Turns out that was smoke and mirrors because that group has struggled since with Milton being sacked four times in the last two games. Against Indiana, the Wolverines averaged just 0.72 yards per carry as they couldn't muster anything on the ground. Not a recipe for success with a first-year starting quarterback.
Milton has topped 300 passing yards in each of the last two games, but accuracy and questionable decision-making continue to limit this offense. The junior quarterback had two interceptions against Indiana and completed just 53 percent of his passes. Although one game is a tiny sample size, Michigan will need balance against a Wisconsin defense that held Illinois to just 218 total yards in their opener and limited the Illini to 87 yards passing.
Graham Mertz is the key to this game, plain and simple. Michigan's secondary has been dreadful to start the year, but Wisconsin's backups are not good enough to take advantage of this susceptible group. And this isn't a Badger offense that can just simply lean on a workhorse running back like they have been able to in year's past as we noted above. With double-digit Wisconsin players in protocol right now, one of which possibly the QB, there is quite a bit of uncertainty right now how this game will shake out. Lean Badgers if Mertz plays, but really like the under of 53.5 with Wisconsin's roster uncertainty and two offenses that aren't running the football up to their typical standards.
Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Michigan 24
Podcast: Week 11 Preview and Predictions
— 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.