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Breaking down Wisconsin’s first half drives against Michigan

Six first half drives, four touchdowns. Not a lot went right for the Wolverines in Madison.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Just about everyone knew that the Michigan defense was due for a step back in 2019. Losing Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, and David Long is not insurmountable, but improving upon a ninth-ranked defense in S&P+ is a steep hurdle with so many new starters. Given the way the Wolverines ended the year, there were enough concerns to expect some growing pains.

Any transition issues that might have appeared did not show up right away this season. Though Middle Tennessee and Army both put up 21 points, almost all of the scoring is explainable. Two of the Blue Raiders’ scoring drives were under 45 yards and came off of Michigan turnovers; the other was in garbage time with backups across the field. Meanwhile, the Black Knights did have one sustained 60-yard, but both of their non-overtime scores also came from Wolverine fumbles.

So the defense was not elite, but it was good through two games. The competition was not exactly imposing, but there were enough reasons to believe that maybe this unit could hold its own despite the loss of so much NFL talent...that is, until Saturday happened.

Everyone knows the story by now, but Michigan could do absolutely nothing to stop the Wisconsin offense. What does absolutely nothing look like? 28 points on six drives, effectively ending the game before halftime even started.

Wisconsin first half drives

Drive No. Method of Poss. Number of Plays Yards Gained End Result
Drive No. Method of Poss. Number of Plays Yards Gained End Result
1 Kickoff 12 75 Touchdown
2 Fumble 8 47 Punt
3 Punt 1 72 Touchdown
4 Punt 15 80 Touchdown
5 Interception 5 5 Punt
6 Punt 2 43 Touchdown

Ouch. Michigan did manage to force two punts, although they only came after a combined four first downs and 52 yards of field position, figures that are greater than the Michigan offense’s production in the five drives following the early fumble. While these two possessions were adequate by the defense, the other four were simply disgraceful.

Take the two long touchdowns, for example: a 72-yard run and a 25-yard quarterback scramble. The Wolverines only allowed three touchdown runs longer than 25 yards last season, yet in Madison they surrendered two in just over 15 minutes. The nightmare flashbacks to Saquon Barkley are justified, but this has typically not been an issue in the past.

Jonathan Taylor is a great player, but breakdowns like in the play below are simply unacceptable and are the result of poor coaching and poor execution. No one is expecting the Michigan defense to hold opponents to under 100 yards rushing every game, but giving up massive run like this are almost certain to cause destruction.

As frustrating as these plays are, however, the first and third Wisconsin scoring drives felt worse. A team like Army is expected to grind out long, methodical drives three yards at a time, but watching the same thing happen against the Badgers points to more of a trend than a quirky opponent.

Wisconsin did what successful offenses do to keep the ball moving: put itself into third-and-shorts and convert from there. When Michigan was able to come up with a key stop, the Badgers decided to go for it on fourth down, converting three times (!!) in the first half. When not winning the battle in the trenches, Wisconsin took to the air, converting a couple key passes for 20-yard chunks.

Even if Michigan eliminates the big plays, it still is struggling to simply get off the field. Three yard gains are only three yard gains, but that is usually enough to keep the chains moving. Wisconsin only went 5-for-13 on third downs, which might seem like a win. However, with 25 first downs on the day, it shows that the Badgers often did not even need three tries to move the sticks.

Rutgers is not Wisconsin. Iowa is a good team, but the Hawkeyes are not quite the Badgers either. There is time for Michigan to pull itself together before the schedule gets tough. But nothing the Wolverines showed on Saturday inspires too much confidence in positive change yet to come, and this is not even taking the offense into consideration.

The plan going forward must be the same as always, which is taking everything one step at a time. Beating Rutgers is the expectation, but the eye test and style points should count just as much as the actual box score.

The Scarlet Knights do not have an offense that will dominate like Wisconsin’s, so here is a chance for Michigan to clean up the mistakes and get off the field. Playing fundamentally sound defense should be more of a given than a hope, but until the Wolverines can show it for a full 60 minutes, there is every reason to question the team’s true ability.

Michigan absolutely must play solidly against Rutgers, not giving up home runs and not being pushed over by an inferior side. Another game with the inability to do so would identify a systemic issue that will probably not be resolved this season.