After a Week 1 disappointing loss to Notre Dame, the Michigan Wolverines are firing on all cylinders after the bludgeoning of several of their previous opponents.
Now, though, the true test lies. The game against Wisconsin this weekend is a season-defining game in a way — the Wolverines’ first true test since the aforementioned loss to the Irish.
Can Michigan prevail, heading into East Lansing with a 6-1 record and undefeated in Big Ten play? Or will Wisconsin keep them grounded with a loss under the lights?
Jake Kocorowski of Buckys5thQuarter.com answers that question and many others in this week’s edition of Behind Enemy Lines.
Josh LaFond: Wisconsin always seems to have one of the best defenses in America year in and year out but have struggled thus far in 2018. Can those struggles be remedied sooner rather than later?
Jake Kocorowski: Right now, I’m not so sure. In Wisconsin’s last three games, they’ve given up some huge chunk plays and/or lots of yards. Against Nebraska, they contained Adrian Martinez and that offense to 156 yards in the first half, but some injuries and an ejection in the secondary of free safety Scott Nelson did not help as the Huskers gained over 500 yards total to end the game.
The first two games, I believe, gave a false sense of confidence that Wisconsin would reload (or potentially even excel) a 2017 unit that was a Top-5 defense. Jim Leonhard had to replace seven starters and a couple key contributors on his defense, and it has shown. The past two games, Wisconsin’s secondary — which had to replace three starters (NFL-bound Nick Nelson and Natrell Jamerson, plus Derrick Tindal and key back-up Joe Ferguson) — is still really young and learning each game. It’s even more banged up this week with co-starters Caesar Williams and Deron Harrell both listed as questionable on yesterday’s preliminary injury report.
With Nelson out the first half, who has shown the most flash as a potential ball hawking safety, redshirt sophomore Eric Burrell will step in alongside D’Cota Dixon. Oh yeah, Dixon limped off the field late in the game on Saturday and was wearing a protective boot on his right foot when speaking with us yesterday — though he expects to play and wasn’t on the injury report.
On top of that, the pass rush just hasn’t been there. The Badgers recorded two sacks on Saturday, but they came into the game only having three in four games. Top pass rusher Andrew Van Ginkel has been injured (right leg) and has not started the last two games, though his presence is felt in pass rushing situations (FWIW, he’s again questionable for Saturday’s game like he was for Iowa and Nebraska).
Long story short, we’ll see what Leonhard’s approach is against Michigan and the rest of the season. It’s just a lot of less experienced guys than last year’s group that was just so stout.
Josh: Jonathan Taylor is still a superstar, but who else is shining or can shine for this Badger offense?
Jake: Taylor’s the big name but you have to look at quarterback Alex Hornibrook immediately thereafter. The redshirt junior quarterback has completed over 64 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. He deserves a lot of credit for helping move an offense on third down, and if he keeps his turnovers low (had 15 interceptions last season), the unit has that potential to put up a lot of points.
Other names fans should know include wide receiver A.J. Taylor and tight end Jake Ferguson, who have emerged as favorite targets for Hornibrook in the passing game. Watch for Ferguson in particular, where he is a key third down target for the southpaw in moving the chains.
Plus, of course, there’s fullback Alec Ingold. Michigan and Wisconsin love their fullbacks. Ingold is the next great one for the Badgers, and he has been used as a short-yardage back (#FullbackDive) while also having runs of 39 and 33 yards, along with a 33-yard reception to his name this season.
Josh: What’s the key matchup that you see potentially deciding this game?
Jake: The two I see really are Wisconsin’s offensive line against Michigan’s front seven. The Badgers average 287 yards on the ground. The Wolverines allow under 100 through six games. Something’s got to give, and for Wisconsin to have success, their running game has to be churning on all cylinders Saturday night.
There’s also Michigan’s passing game against Wisconsin’s seemingly depleted secondary. Can UW put enough pressure on Patterson to make him throw some poor passes, or could DJP go crazy on the Badgers’ defensive backfield?
Josh: Does Wisconsin have the division on lock or do they have some serious competition this year in the Big Ten West?
Jake: I’m still up in the air about this. They should, as I feel they are the most talented team in the West and they beat Iowa on the road earlier this season, which in my opinion was the biggest challenger to the Badgers. However, Wisconsin’s road schedule is tougher in the conference with playing at Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern (almost always an abyss of success at Ryan Field), Penn State and Purdue.
They should win this division, but I feel they need to win either at Michigan or at Penn State to feel much more comfortable. The Hawkeyes play the Nittany Lions as well this season, so the Badgers can afford a conference loss and still win the division if the Hawkeyes fall to James Franklin’s squad.
Josh: As electric as he was back in the ‘90s, could a player like Ron Dayne make it in today’s college football landscape when the nation for the most part has gone less of the power run and to more of a spread style offense featuring one-cut, speed backs?
Jake: I think you look at how Georgia Tech or other option teams still playing, and there’d be a chance depending upon scheme. Now, and for running backs’ health as well, I feel it’s much healthier to have an offense having a rotation of backs to keep fresh but also create matchup problems. Now Taylor currently is among the top backs in the country not just in rushing yards but also carries (126); however, he has been spelled by Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek — both of whom have played well.
Also, and I have to say, Dayne was a once-in-a-lifetime type back for Wisconsin that combined speed and size to brutalize opposing defenses. I think he could still make a significant impact in today’s college game somehow.
Josh: Halfway through the regular season, give us your end of year predictions. Who wins the Heisman and which teams are making the college football playoff?
Jake: I think the odds on favorite for the Heisman is Tua Tagovailoa. The season he’s currently having is just hands down impressive. I’m excited to see what else he does this season.
For the CFP, I’d say ‘Bama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia. Notre Dame could be in there as well and swap out with Clemson, but those are my four right now. If Wisconsin runs the table the rest of the way and would beat the Buckeyes in the conference championship game, then there’s a chance for Bucky (*stares at BYU loss*, or not).
Josh: Let’s finish it up with a game and score prediction.
Jake: Wisconsin’s defense I’m just not as confident in as I was earlier this season, and with the injuries in that unit, it could be a big impact against Michigan. I think Shea Patterson takes advantage in the passing game, and Michigan’s front seven does enough to halt the Wisconsin ground game.
Going 24-17 Michigan under the lights of the Big House.
Special thanks to Jake Kocorowski of Buckys5thQuarter.com. Head on over and check out Jake, and the rest of the team’s coverage of the Badgers in advance of their trip to Ann Arbor. You can also click HERE to check out my preseason Q&A with Jake.