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Michigan’s defense must win on third down against Wisconsin

Everyone knows the Badgers want to run the ball, but the passing game has looked sharp as well.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Just two games are never enough for drawing real conclusions, and the two games that Michigan has played are especially unhelpful. Unfortunately for both analysts and the team, this small sample size will have to do, as the Wolverines head for an important clash against Wisconsin on Saturday.

What makes the first two weeks of 2019 hard to use as examples for the rest of the season is that both Middle Tennessee and Army run offenses that are not representative of the majority of the Big Ten, coincidentally on opposite ends of the spectrum. While Wisconsin may skew toward the Black Knights side, it will be a much different look than two weeks ago.

Both games saw Michigan ultimately come away victorious, but with the defense looking less sharp than desired, specifically in the secondary. The Blue Raiders did not exactly tear apart the Wolverines secondary, but a 22-for-32 day from Asher O’Hara did yield a couple scores and over 200 yards. What Army did through the air is probably not even worth evaluating, but it was not a 100 percent clean game from the defensive backs.

The Wolverines have stepped up in one area: third down defense. Middle Tennessee and Army combined for just a 29 percent conversion rate against Michigan, which is in-line with the defense’s 33 percent rate from 2018.

This week will not be nearly as easy, with the Badgers converting a impressive 65 percent of their third downs. If the Wolverines are going to earn a key win on the road:

Michigan’s defense must win on third down

The Badgers have put up a ton of points in their first two games of the season. While Michigan is unquestionably superior to these initial opponents, Wisconsin’s early offensive success cannot be ignored. Running back Jonathan Taylor has been excellent as always, but it really is the improved passing game that makes this game dangerous.

Quarterback Jack Coan has looked extremely impressive to start the year, going 45-for-59 for 564 yards and five touchdowns. Even though the competition has been mediocre, this represents a notable improvement over predecessor Alex Hornibrook and a surprising new element of the Badger offense.

Even if Michigan’s defensive line was playing up to its full potential (which it is not), Taylor is going to have a good day on the ground, as he does against every team. Where Michigan can really succeed, though, is by getting off the field when Wisconsin is forced to throw. This task looks much more difficult now than it did before the season began.

Coan is not expected to take a ton of shots downfield, and outside of Quintez Cephus (who Dan Ploucher highlighted on Thursday) his receiving core is modest. However, Michigan absolutely must eliminate the quick hitters and short passes that will allow Wisconsin to move the chains and keep handing the ball off to Taylor.

The secondary has been good but not great so far. Still, Lavert Hill is more than capable of locking up Coan, Ambry Thomas has been a pleasant surprise, and while Vincent Gray has been a little up-and-down, his coverage looks pretty solid. Michigan can absolutely win the passing downs and should be able to force Wisconsin into punts when the yardage is too much for a Taylor carry. The Badgers have looked strong out to the gate, but they have yet to face a defense like this one.