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Roundtable: Can Michigan spoil Wisconsin's undefeated season?

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Michigan looks for its first road win against an AP Top 25 opponent since 2006.

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Ed: Hey, guys. Here we are, Michigan sitting at 8-2 with two huge games remaining. The previous three games in particular seem to have given this team the opportunity to develop some of the inexperienced talent on the roster. Who have you been most impressed with of the young guys?

Von: Is it cheating if I say Brandon Peters? If not, I’m going with him.

Since Peters emerged during the Rutgers game, this Michigan offense has looked completely different in a good way. There have been a whopping zero turnovers on offense since the QB change, the offensive line has been better, the game plan and play calls have been better. Everything has just been better. Peters already has the amount of passing touchdowns that Speight and O’Korn have combined. Although he has missed on a few deep balls, I have been pretty impressed with the young QB.

Dan: Since Von took the obvious call, I’ll say Khaleke Hudson. After PSU, this defense could have folded. The offense was going nowhere and they’d suffered a huge loss. Hudson has stepped up his game, particularly the last two weeks. I can’t speak to his rah-rah leadership ability or role within the team, but his play has spoken for itself. The dude is balling.

Jabrill Peppers was incredible last year, but his impact sometimes got overstated because of his skills as a punt returner and occasional wildcat/offensive weapon. Depending on what numbers you’re looking at, he has anywhere between five and six sacks, two picks, two forced fumbles, and somewhere in the high teens tackles for losses. He’s been a terror and is only getting better.

Jared: Have to agree with the gentlemen above with their picks, especially Khaleke Hudson, but there have been plenty of young guys raising eyebrows so I’ll go with Sean McKeon. One of the glaring weaknesses of the offense right now is the lack of reliable pass catchers. The stats on our receivers this year are nonexistent, and they don’t appear to be on pace to radically improve over these last few weeks. That makes McKeon’s emergence even more critical.

McKeon does not jump off the tape with his play, but he does nearly everything well. He is reliable, durable, has soft hands, and is improving every week as a blocker. Gentry may be more talented and have the higher upside, but McKeon has been the security blanket that Peters has desperately needed and will continue to need moving forward.

Colman: Good picks all, but I think the most obvious pick is Devin Bush. As a sophomore he is leading this Michigan team in tackles...by 20! He’s been credited with 81 total; next is Mike McCray with 61. He averages around eight per game and has simply been everywhere for this defense all year.

It’s easy to get overshadowed at times when you have guys like Hudson putting up ABSURD numbers one game, Winovich the next, Hurst the next and so on. Yet with so many talented guys on this defense, across the board, Bush produces better than all of them. His tackles tie him for 4th in the B1G. His 5.5 sacks put him 10th in the B1G. His 9.5 TFLs put him just outside the top ten in the B1G, and he has 8 PBUs to boot.

If you think about the simple opportunity to get stats on this defense it makes these numbers even better. No one on the team can claim this kind of stat sheet across categories. He is as smart and instinctive linebacker as we’ve seen in many years (most are referring back to David Harris’ time for comparison) and he’s just getting going. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever seen a LB as versatile and fast as Bush at Michigan. Michigan has a very special player in their young LB.

David: I am very impressed with a few of the young guys as mentioned above. While several have had their moments, my pick is Devin Bush. I won't add the same stats as others have already above, but will elaborate a bit. Ever since his first play against Florida, he has been so physical all over the field by knocking down balls and tackling hard. He's been the most consistent of the younger guys, though my feelings may change if Brandon Peters can pull out some impressive wins.

Ed: Wisconsin is a team that has been plagued, according to the College Football Playoff committee, by a weak schedule. They finally got a big win last week, crushing Iowa. Now they're getting another chance at a statement win with the Wolverines coming to town. Is this Michigan offense ready for another spotlight game? What are the keys for the Wolverines in this one?

Von: The key for Michigan offensively is the offensive line. No success will be found if Mason Cole and company cannot pass protect. Peters played so well last weekend in large part because he had a lot of time to progress through his reads and deliver. I don’t foresee him having that same luxury this weekend.

Wisconsin has the No. 1 rushing defense and No. 1 total defense in the Big Ten. Michigan’s young offensive line is going to have to find a way to get Peters time to throw the ball, and to open lanes for the running backs to churn out yards. If Wisconsin makes Michigan’s offense one dimensional on Saturday, it’s more than likely because its defensive line is causing havoc against the U-M O-Line.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Maryland Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Dan: The key is going to be withstanding that original sucker punch from Wisconsin. Von and I talked a bit in this week’s Mailing it In about the Wisconsin crowd and the challenges it could provide for a young Wolverines team. I think Wisconsin comes out and tries to hit Fumagalli isolated against a safety early and will definitely look to jump on Michigan like Penn State did. I’m not sure Wisconsin has the offensive creativity or big play potential to constantly keep the defense on their toes, but an early score and an inability of Michigan’s offense and punting game to flip the field could lead to trouble. Wisconsin and Michigan in some ways are mirror images of one another. Both want to get ahead early, run the ball, and play field position as they wear their opponent down.

Jared: Excellent point by Dan about withstanding the emotions right out of the gate. That will be especially important for Peters who will be in by far the most hostile environment he has ever seen as a player. I really think Michigan needs to find a way to get at least one turnover, and at least one explosive play. Wisconsin wants to win the same we we like to win; with a punishing ground game and stout defense. Neither team can afford to give the ball away, so winning that turnover battle will be crucial. Peters does not have to write his legend in one game, he just needs to stay on schedule.

Perhaps equally as importantly, we have got to find a way to get a few explosive plays in one phase of the game. Maybe that is on the defensive side of the ball with a pick-six, or Ambry Thomas finally getting loose on a return. I have all but given up on hitting the deep ball this season, Peters and his receivers just seem too out of synch and really only get one or two opportunities to connect each game. Chris Evans has been coming on lately, and has game breaking ability on offense. He could provide a huge boost if he can get loose for a big play on Saturday.

Colman: Those are some really excellent points guys. They are honestly the three top things I can think of as keys. This Wisconsin team has such a similar profile to Michigan, marquee wins at a minimum (or none in Michigan’s case), a great defense, good running game, shaky QB play, and a lot to prove.

Offensively, I think certainly Brandon Peters will have to have the best game of his young career for Michigan to win the game and the pass protection will have to give him some time to do so. Michigan will also have to continue running the ball well against the best rushing defense they have seen this year. This will be an extremely tough environment and communication will be difficult. Peters, and the leaders on the o-line, need to make sure everyone is on the same page every play because the Camp Randall crowd will not make it easy on them.

Defensively, getting pressure on Alex Hornibrook will be essential. If Michigan can manage to make them one dimensional, the chances of winning increase exponentially. Michigan has the best defense they’ve seen all year and no one in the Big Ten gets as much QB pressure; this will have to continue. If he’s running for his life, he’s going to make some mistakes and Michigan will have to be ready to capitalize.

In a game that figures to be more of a defensive battle, the big plays will decide the game. Michigan will have to figure out how to get them one way or another in any phase of the game.

David: I talked a lot about this on my Facebook live session yesterday. They are two of the overall top three defenses in the country. Wisconsin hasn't played Michigan State or Penn State, and both teams have been very similar in the last few weeks based on all the categories by offense and defense. Michigan has played Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland on the road where Wisconsin has played Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. Here's a quick breakdown based on how Michigan is ahead of Wisconsin over the last three games:

  • Fewer penalties (13 vs. 16)
  • Fewer Turnovers (6 vs. 1)
  • More total yards (401 vs. 364)
  • Longer punt average (41.6 vs. 40)
  • Fewer sacks allowed (3 vs. 6)
  • More touchdowns (15 vs. 13)

The only areas Wisconsin has done better on offense in the last three games is time of possession (36 minutes vs. Michigan’s 31 minutes) and third down efficiency (45% vs. Michigan's 35%)

By comparing the two and also their games against Purdue and Maryland, they are very similar teams.

Ed: The Badgers play old school Big Ten football, with a huge offensive line and pounding the ball on the ground. But when they have chosen to air it out, Alex Hornibrook has had a tendency to throw picks. What should be Michigan’s game plan on defense to slowing or stopping Wisconsin?

Von: Don’t let Wisconsin dictate the game. Wisconsin will more than likely try to do what you said, Ed: run the ball with authority and pound out yards. Michigan should try to get after Hornibrook and Jonathan Taylor by blitzing more often than not. Hornibrook has thrown a pick in eight of the Badgers’ 10 games this season, so bring the blitz, get the DBs in place and make a play.

Dan: Go after them! Brown needs to eliminate the running game, and I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing Hill or Long slide inside to help on the tight ends. I don’t really want to watch Metellus and Kinnel get picked on by dynamic tight ends for 60 minutes. And don’t let Mike McCray end up on a running back.

Jared: Jonathan Taylor is an absolute stud running back, and Wisconsin was a different team without him, so I think slowing him down will be essential. We probably don’t shut him down entirely, but if he is held under 100 yards rushing we should be in good shape.

I am praying with every ounce of my being that Lavert Hill clears concussion protocol and is good to go by Saturday, because the dropoff from him to Brandon Watson is substantial. We cannot afford to give up big chunk plays through the air, so our secondary is going to have to keep it airtight again. If we can hold their offense around the 14-21 point range, I like our chances.

Colman: I kind of answered this already but Michigan must keep pressure on Hornibrook. He is an efficient QB (2nd best in B1G) but he’s also thrown a lot of INTs. If you flush him out of the pocket and force him to make quicker decisions, that is a big advantage for Michigan in coverage which has limited opposing passing games about as well as anyone all year. Michigan is 3rd nationally in passing efficiency defense, unfortunately, Wisconsin is #1.

They have an excellent running back in Jonathan Taylor so containing him is obviously job one as he is their best offensive player. By containing, I mean don’t let him get 200+ yards and limit explosive plays. He’s the guy I look at when I ask myself, who could hurt Michigan the most? I think if Michigan can keep him in the 100-150 range that will also force Wisconsin to pass more which, again, puts more pressure on Hornibrook to be mistake free.

Lastly, Wisconsin is #1 in the nation at converting on 3rd down, getting a 1st down over 52% of the time. Conversely, Michigan is #1 at stopping teams on third down, only allowing first downs 23% of the time. The team who bests the other on this particular statistic probably wins the game.

David: It will be cold, around 40 degrees, and potentially 20 MPH winds. If they can get Wisconsin to some third-and-long situations, it could create turnovers or punt situations for solid field position like last week at Maryland. They have to contain Taylor as well, who's had a great year but averages 22 carries per game. He had only 73 yards against Illinois and 126 against Maryland. He's averaging 5.9 yards per carry in the last three games and one touchdown. If they can keep him under 150 yards, it may be a long day for their offense and a tight game in the end.

Ed: This Michigan team has really improved since getting destroyed against Penn State, but the Wolverines haven't beaten an AP Top 25 team on the road since 2006. Is this the week that changes? Let's get some predictions.

Von: I’ll be bold and say this is the week it changes. I’ve felt good about this game since before the season started. I don’t really have a reason behind that, but I am going to stick by that gut feeling that I’ve had. This is probably going to be a very low scoring game, so I will say:

Michigan 17, Wisconsin 13

NCAA Football: Michigan at Maryland Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Dan: I just think that Wisconsin is always going to be a decent matchup for Michigan as long as Harbaugh is here. They’ll matchup strength against strength, but I will always trust Michigan’s athletes a bit more. That takes nothing away from the Wisconsin program as I have nothing but respect for them, and I love watching that running game. This will be a low-possession rock fight. I think this team is ready to take a step up from some of the prime time failures of earlier this year.

Michigan 16, Wisconsin 10

Jared: The only thing that makes me nervous about this game is what happens once Peters starts getting hit by some grown men on Saturday. If he can grow up in a hurry and do just enough to keep the offense on schedule, Michigan can certainly pull off the upset. I almost never predict a Michigan loss, but I am going to switch it up and reverse jinx us on this one just for the sake of variety and superstition. Plus, if Michigan only gets one big win all season, I want it to be against OSU.

Wisconsin 21, Michigan 17

Colman: I have seen that statistic no less than a half dozen times this week already and it makes me cringe every time. It’s one of those stats that’s crazy to think about. Yes, there have been some really bad years since 2006, but how in the world has that happened?!

It is certainly past time to change that. At the beginning of the year I predicted this to be Michigan’s only loss, just one of many things I’ve gotten wrong about this team. Sometimes the preseason enthusiasm and hype can get to everyone, and sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you think they will. Best example is the QB situation, even with Speight in there it just wasn’t right was it?

I’m going to change my preseason prediction on this one and say that Michigan bests it’s red and white clones in an old school, beat ‘em up, drag ‘em out, defensive battle and solidifies their season with a quality win.

Michigan 17, Wisconsin 14

David: I have seen so many predictions with Wisconsin winning 34-28 and 24-10. I do not see this being a high scoring game and similar to last year. Vegas has the over/under at 39 and think they are very close. Michigan gets its first road win versus a top-25 team since 2006.

Michigan 21, Wisconsin 17