It’s been 13 years since Michigan Stadium hosted a top-10 showdown, so, with No. 8 Wisconsin coming to town to take on No. 4 Michigan this weekend, this is one of the most important home games for the Wolverines in some time. What will Michigan be facing in Wisconsin? Trevor Woods introduced you to the Badgers yesterday, but, today, we were able to get the insight from a Badgers expert. Jake Kocorowski (@JakeKocoB5Q) is an editor and writer for Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) — SB Nation’s Wisconsin site — and co-authored “Walk-On This Way,” a book about Wisconsin’s walk-on tradition. Jake took the time to answer our questions, provide his insight on this Wisconsin team, break down the matchups between the Badgers and Wolverines, and predict which team will win this showdown (and then flip his answer one day later).
Maize n Brew: Wisconsin already has two top-10 wins through the first four weeks, edging LSU at Lambeau Field and demoralizing Michigan State in East Lansing. What did the Badgers do successfully in those games? How will they try to replicate that success against Michigan?
Jake Kocorowski: In those two games, Wisconsin's defense held those offenses to 13 total points (one of LSU's touchdowns was a pick-six), and only allowed a combined 6-of-23 third down conversions -- not as impressive as Michigan's stingy stat in that category (12 percent) but nonetheless dominant. Through four games, UW's defense has allowed only three offensive touchdowns.
Though they gave up 138 yards rushing to Leonard Fournette at six yards per clip, they held the Tigers to 257 yards because they contained the running game and forced the quarterback to beat them. Against the Spartans, who ran for 260 against the Fighting Irish a week prior, the Badgers allowed only 75 total yards on the ground. Wisconsin forced a combined seven turnovers those two games -- including five interceptions.
It will be a tall task against a talented Michigan offense, but if they can make them one dimensional and cause some takeaways, they have a shot.
MnB: Despite the two aforementioned quality wins, Wisconsin did have a subpar performance against Georgia State, trailing in the fourth quarter before claiming a 23-17 win. Was this just a typical letdown game with MSU on deck? Or did it reveal certain flaws about this team?
JK: The Georgia State performance was supposed to be what was seen the week prior against Akron (after the emotional LSU win) as the "trap game." The Panthers were able to neutralize the pass rush of Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt with the three-step drops and an uptempo spread offense. The more egregious errors came in the secondary, where there were some missed plays and assignments that led to some big gains. A key injury to nickelback Natrell Jamerson may have led to some troubles at first, but last week the defensive backs played quite well against the Spartans.
The position group itself has overachieved after being a question mark heading into 2016 with three starters leaving the program due to exhausting their eligibility. Former three-time All-American and 10-year NFL veteran Jim Leonhard returned to his alma mater as defensive backs coach, and there's confidence growing. If there's still one place to attack, it is through the passing game. So far, cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal have locked down opposing wide receivers. We'll see how they'll perform in the Big House.
Offensively, things just didn't click (more on that below actually).
MnB: Prior to the Michigan State game, Paul Chryst decided to switch quarterbacks and start Alex Hornibrook over Bart Houston. Hornibrook responded by completing 16-of-26 passes (61.5%) for 195 yards (7.5 YPA), one touchdown, and one meaningless interception at the end of the half. Why did Chryst make this move so early in the season, especially since the Badgers were 3-0? How would you evaluate Hornibrook's performance versus the Spartans?
JK: For the first question, it wasn't entirely Houston's fault he was pulled. A goal line fumble and a missed field goal left 10 points off the board in a 6-0 game at halftime, and if they convert those opportunities, it makes you wonder if the switch would have actually been made. That being said, the offense was out-of-rhythm and only converted 3-of-9 third down opportunities. Chryst has stated repeatedly that they need to convert in the red zone and move the chains.
Against Michigan State, Hornibrook did just that. Wisconsin scored touchdowns on all three red zone chances, and he completed 9-of-13 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown on third downs -- six of those completions moving the chains. Based on that alone, his debut was a success. Like Houston, he may have one or two throws in a game that make fans (and Chryst) probably cringe, but the redshirt freshman gives the Badgers' offense an intriguing dynamic of stretching the passing game with an accurate deep ball. He frequently found wide receiver Jazz Peavy last Saturday for big gains (four receptions, 96 yards), and despite Wisconsin's running game being stymied due to some injuries, he kept drives churning. The big test comes up against that Wolverines' defense.
MnB: Wisconsin has developed a reputation for being a smash-mouth offensive team that wins in the trenches and pounds the football. However, that has not been the case so far this year. Despite that the Badgers strongly prefer to run on standard downs, they are only tied for 99th in yards per carry (3.94). Is this the result of facing two strong defenses in LSU and Michigan State, injuries to the offensive line and Corey Clement, or something else entirely? And what needs to happen for Wisconsin to move the ball on the ground against Michigan, which has a run defense that's second in S&P+'s Success Rate and first in tackles for loss?
JK: It's a combination of what you mentioned above. LSU and Michigan State have immense talent in their front seven, but UW faced the Spartans with two key injuries to their offensive line (both left guards Micah Kapoi and Jon Dietzen did not play). Insert versatile former walk-on Brett Connors, who had to make his first career start at Spartan Stadium at center, and they moved Michael Deiter out to left guard. Clement mentioned earlier on Tuesday that he felt he was 100 percent, but the left ankle injury from earlier this season against Akron has hampered his ability to return to his 2014 form where he was only 51 yards shy of 1,000.
This group of linemen -- when healthy -- has a chance to be special, probably more so next season with an extra year under their belts. Against Michigan, they need to be healthy -- we'll see during Chryst's press conference tomorrow afternoon who was added or taken off the injury list. If they're at or near full strength, they need to replicate what they did against LSU. It wasn't pretty with 134 yards with 3.2 yards per clip, but at times they do some decent things against the Tigers. Again, third-down conversions will be key, especially in short yardage situations.
MnB: Michigan's defense has been dominant on a down-to-down basis (second in S&P+'s defensive efficiency), but has been susceptible to allowing big plays. However, those big plays happened when Michigan faced uptempo spread offenses, which is not what the Badgers will put on the field on Saturday. Nonetheless, who is the Badger that Michigan's defense must account for on every play because he is explosive enough to break one open?
JK: In terms of breaking one open, I don't know if there's a player that really stands out. Wisconsin's offense takes up chunks of yardage for long periods of time, but I'll go with Clement. When healthy, and if he gets to his 2014 self, he has the burst from the line of scrimmage to the second level of the defense quickly. If there's a hole the line can open up and the New Jersey native's in the backfield, it could lead to big and much needed gains.
Passing game-wise, you have to watch out for Peavy, who may not necessarily be a candidate of the "break one every play" variety, but he's averaging over 17 yards per reception this season and leads the team in receptions (16). He's converted some key third downs by getting open in the second and third levels of the defense.
MnB: Wisconsin's defense has been one of the best units in the country. None of its opponents have hit the 20-point threshold (seventh in scoring defense), and the Badgers are sixth in Defensive S&P+. The leaders of this unit appear to be the linebackers, led by Jack Cichy, T.J. Watt, T.J. Edwards, and Vince Biegel. May you briefly describe what each of these Badgers brings to the table? And what do the Wolverines have to do to exploit these gentlemen?
JK: The linebackers are the playmakers on this defense, but as Biegel noted on Monday to reporters, a lot of credit goes to the defensive line eating up blocks. Biegel's the leader of the defense, and though stats don't show it, he's put pressure on quarterbacks all season. Watt replaced All-American Joe Schobert, and he really hasn't skipped a beat. He has a combination of size, motor and athleticism that showed against the Spartans (2.5 sacks, 3.5 TFLs, six tackles). Cichy, another former walk-on, leads the team in tackles and flies around the field. Edwards led the team in tackles last year, and even with starter Chris Orr out for the year with a knee injury (they had three capable starters at inside linebacker), the redshirt sophomore gives them stability and the ability to shed tackles to make plays. It's truly an embarrassment of riches at that position.
In terms of exploiting the players, really the only thing I'd say is to reduce their ability to pressure Speight. Three step drops, read option looks have reduced some production on the linebackers' end in the passing game. If possible, Michigan's offensive line will need to ensure the defensive line can't assert their authority at the line of scrimmage, which would then open holes in the Michigan running game. Should be a great match-up.
MnB: One of the most important matchups will be Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt against Sojourn Shelton, Leo Musso, and the rest of Wisconsin's secondary. I think Michigan will need to find its offensive success through the air and have Wilton Speight push the ball downfield. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this pass defense?
JK: I completely agree with you regarding how Michigan could neturalize Wisconsin's defense. The main strength of the pass defense is that you have players playing with impressive confidence. Combine that with the approach Leonhard has brought to that position group, and the results speak for themselves. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal have combined for three interceptions and 10 pass break-ups this season already, showing they've been tested but stood up against the likes of LSU's, Akron's and MSU's receivers. Though Jamerson's out, junior Lubern Figaro has stepped up and been pretty productive in two games, regaining some of that confidence after a forgettable 2015 season. The emergence of Leo Musso and D'Cota Dixon to replace Tanner McEvoy and Michael Caputo as the starting safeties have been a pleasant surprise. They're both under 5'11 and between 190-200 pounds, so there was some concern about their ability to face a big back like Fournette or help in the run game. So far they've debunked that worry, along with making big plays -- Musso with that 66-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown last week, and Dixon who actually made that hit to cause the fumble (along with leading the team in tackles that day).
Weaknesses were exposed really in that Georgia State game mentioned earlier. They took some bad angles in that second half against the Panthers, which seem to be uncharacteristic of the group. They also missed tackles on key plays in that game as well. Against Michigan, they'll be stressed again with Darboh, Chesson and Butt. They haven't faced a tight end the caliber Butt is. I want to see how they react to that challenge.
MnB: Wisconsin has won 11 of its last 13 games played outside of Madison, with its only losses to the future national champion (Ohio State in 2014 and Alabama in 2015). What is it about the Badgers that have made them such a difficult team to beat inside one's own stadium?
JK: Wisconsin's players approach the game on a week-to-week basis. Even right after their huge win against then top-five LSU, wide receiver Robert Wheelwright told me they were already looking to Akron. To Akron. It's a 1-0 mentality that may sound cliche, but the Chryst and his coaching staff from 2015 to now have done a great job of keeping their focus on each week's opponents. The Badgers, since Barry Alvarez took over in 1990 until now, have prided themselves on being the blue-collar underdogs with a chip on their shoulder who will physically punish and grind you. Bret Bielema continued that, and you can say the same for Gary Andersen's tenure -- though the philosophies in several areas may have been different. Chryst knows Wisconsin, knows the players and what has made the program successful. Chryst mentioned a couple of weeks ago that he doesn't believe in upsets in college football really. It'd be quite the accomplishment if they do the same again in 2016 in Ann Arbor.
MnB: Fill in the blank: for Wisconsin to beat Michigan on Saturday, the Badgers must ________.
JK: Create turnovers and own the time of possession. It's redundant, but it's worked for Wisconsin this year. In TOP alone in the first quarter, the Badgers have held the ball for 50:27 alone...that's insane. They average over 37 minutes per game through the first third of the season (good for third in the nation). They need to convert on third downs (which is a daunting task against the Wolverines, I mind you), move the chains, and Wisconsin has their recipe for success there.
UW's forced nine turnovers so far this season -- the most in four games since the start of the 2003 season. Four last weekend led to 13 points. The only game they didn't create turnovers? Georgia State. If they can create some magic once again, like they did against LSU, Akron and Michigan State, it would make for quite the entertaining game here.
MnB: Prediction time. What will happen? Who wins? What is the final score?
JK: Close game, and it will be physical. I think turnovers play a key role in this game. If Wisconsin gets a few, they make it very interesting with an upset special. Earlier this week, with the shorter injury report, I felt a 20-17 game in UW's favor was possible. As of Wednesday, I thought Michigan -- being at home, with their dynamic offense and ridiculous third-down defense -- might be just too much in a 20-16 game.
I sent that answer, and then I asked to change it on Thursday morning (it's election season, so it's good to flip flop, right?!?). I still feel it's up in the air and could go both ways. There's just this feeling, when covering the Wisconsin football program now for three years, that there's an edge and a chip on their shoulder on this squad that motivates them to play one game fiercely at a time. It's hard to sleep on the Badgers now even with two Top-10 wins under their belt, but the majority of pundits are predicting a Michigan win, As they've shown throughout this early part of the season, they're capable of great upsets.
Michigan could blow them out of the water, but I don't feel that'll be the case. The defense has stepped up when needed, and even with a tempered run game, a redshirt freshman quarterback with great poise and maturity for his age, moved the chains against a solid Spartans' defense. If they somehow come out of Ann Arbor with a win, I wouldn't be surprised, and I'm going with a bold take 17-16 Wisconsin on a last second field goal.
Jake with the last-minute switch and flair for the last-second drama. He expects a close game that ends with Wisconsin earning its third top-10 win. What do you think? Do you agree that will be close? Or will one team blow out the other? Comment below!