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What we learned against Wisconsin: Development has been slow, but this team is close

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The Wolverines looked good for much of the game, but ran out of gas late.

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

The schedule is never going to shake out perfectly for Michigan. Every year in the Big Ten there will be games on the road against top teams, and sooner or later the Wolverines are going to have to learn how to win some of those contests or the success that most expect to come will be unattainable.

Michigan and Wisconsin are very similar teams. They want to line up and run the ball. They want to control the clock and grind down opponents. They want to play stingy, hard-nosed defense. And this season in particular, they were both plagued with no signature wins on their resumes. For Wisconsin, the opportunity simply didn’t arise, based on its schedule — unless you count Iowa or Northwestern as “signature” games. For Michigan, the opportunities came and went.

Saturday in Madison, both of these teams were playing to make a statement. Wisconsin wanted to remain undefeated and in the playoff hunt. Michigan wanted respect, to show the conference and the country that it’s better than most have concluded.

At the end of the day, the Badgers were the stronger team, which was expected. They have an experienced roster, a proven quarterback, a breakout running back and a mean defense — and had home field advantage. But the Wolverines, given the circumstances, were not far off.

Let’s take a look at the lessons we learned in this one.

Lesson 1: Final score doesn’t tell the whole story

This game was tied at the half and Michigan led midway through the third quarter. Seeing the final score and the late-game highlights of Wisconsin scoring on big plays doesn’t tell the full picture of this one, because there were about a handful of plays that completely changed the contest.

In the final minutes of the first quarter, in a scoreless defensive battle, Michigan punted and it appeared the ball stalled at midfield. That’s what it looked like to fans, and I can only assume that’s what it looked like to the players as well — because they held up just enough for the Wisconsin return man to scoop it up, fight through a small crowd along the sideline and then break it free to the end zone.

Two Wolverine possessions later, Michigan had the ball inside the Wisconsin 5-yard-line when it appeared Donovan Peoples-Jones caught a fade to the nearside. The refs reviewed the play and stayed with the call on the field of an incomplete pass. It was admittedly extremely close, but the evidence seemed to be there to warrant a touchdown. One play later, Brandon Peters fumbled on the 1-yard-line and the Wolverines came up with zero points.

In a game with fairly few penalties — each team only committed four — there was one called against the Wolverines that changed the game completely. Following a Quinn Nordin field goal that put Michigan up 10-7 in the third quarter, the Badgers got the ball and went backward four yards on first down. On second-and-long, Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a pass several yards behind his receiver streaking down the near sideline. It almost looked like there was a miscommunication between the two. The result should have been an incomplete pass and a third-and-long. Instead, there was a pass interference call on Tyree Kinnel to give the Badgers a first down. Was there contact? A little. Slightly. The call was weak, in my opinion, especially given where the ball was thrown. Wisconsin marched down the field and scored the go-ahead touchdown on that drive.

And then, of course, Peters went down with an injury on the next Michigan possession — spelling doom for the Wolverines.

Now, my point to bring these things up isn’t to make excuses. Wisconsin deserved to win that game. They made plays when they needed to, and they certainly overcame penalties as well — like when Johnathan Taylor’s long run deep into Michigan territory was called back for a holding call in the third quarter. No, my reasoning is to show that these Wolverines are getting better, but still are making unacceptable mistakes and aren’t good enough to overcome calls that put them in vulnerable positions during big games.

If a few of those plays I mentioned go in Michigan’s favor, this game likely comes down to the final possession.

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

Lesson 2: You’re only as strong as your quarterback play

We’ve seen it all year: the Michigan defense keeps the team in games, but the offense is so stagnant that there is little hope for pulling out the victory. And when you begin to lose hope, isn’t virtually all lost?

Michigan seemed to find an answer at quarterback against Rutgers when Brandon Peters entered the game. He played well and continued to do so over the next two games. While far from perfect, he did what he needed to do, made enough plays and, best of all, gave this entire team a renewed confidence in the offense — which can spill over into motivation for the defense as well.

Peters had a pretty good game against Wisconsin as well. He was 9-of-18 for 157 yards. Sure, he fumbled on the 1-yard-line when the Wolverines just needed points, but those types of errors happen when a guy is playing in his fourth game and the first marquee matchup of his young career. The team still rallied around him. But then came the big hit on a third down pass, knocking Peters out of the game, and everything changed.

The Wolverines seemed to deflate after that injury in the third quarter — on both sides of the ball. At that point, they were down 14-10 and out-gaining Wisconsin. But then the Badgers went down the field and scored again to make it 21-10 and in came John O’Korn, the guy who played so poorly in the multiple starts he’d gotten earlier in the season.

There was very little left in the tank. O’Korn finished the game 2-of-8 for 19 yards and Michigan tallied its third loss of the season.

In the future, the Wolverines will only go as far as the quarterback will take them.

Lesson 3: Development has been slow, but this team is close

This team has shown glimpses of promise throughout the season, but has yet put it all together for 60 minutes. To become an elite team and compete with the best, that needs to change.

Against Wisconsin, Michigan was right in it until Peters got hurt. In fact, some people would say Michigan was slightly out-playing the Badgers for much of the game to that point.

Against Penn State, after giving up two quick touchdowns in the first five minutes of the game, Michigan battled back in a tough environment to answer with two touchdowns of its own in the second quarter.

Both of those games got away from the Wolverines, but they showed that they had the talent to play with the best teams in the conference. It comes down to many factors, but consistent quarterback play and coaching are what will save this team.

The roster was loaded with youth when this season began, but at this point it’s getting difficult to continue calling them inexperienced. Virtually an entire season is now under their belts and they’ve certainly shown that they are developing.

The off-season will go a long way toward prepping this team for a solid 2018 campaign, but right now I’m worried about the game that lies ahead against Ohio State. At the beginning of the season, I thought this Michigan team would be progressed to the point where it would be neck and neck with the Buckeyes come The Game. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to the be the case. But hey, I’d love to be proven wrong on Saturday.