In many ways, Michigan and Wisconsin mirror each other.
There’s former Badger strength coach Ben Herbert now building his trademark 320-pound linemen for Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines run the ball 60-percent of the time, while Wisconsin’s run-pass ratio is 2:1. From 2015 to 2017, both defenses finished in the top-10 in S&P.
The head coaches, on the other hand, couldn’t conduct themselves any more differently. Jim Harbaugh has a history of passionate histrionics, all in the name of relentless competition.
For Paul Chryst, as ESPN’s Brian Bennett put it in 2016, “You would be hard-pressed to tell the difference in his demeanor between a spring practice and after (2016’s) victories over top-10 teams LSU and Michigan State.”
The two share a close bond. Their dads coached with each other. Harbaugh played quarterback for the San Diego Chargers when Chryst was on the offensive staff. They frequently share advice.
Despite the magnetism between the programs and their lead ambassadors, Harbaugh did once say that on game day:
“We’re going to try to gouge each other’s eyes out.”
MOTO (Master of the Obvious)
No. 15 Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0) at No. 12 Michigan (5-1, 3-0), 7:30 p.m.
Radio: ESPN Radio/Michigan IMG Sports Network (TuneIn)
Line: Michigan by 9 (Bovada)
Series history: Michigan leads 50-15-1. The two have split the last 10 meetings, with the road team only winning twice (Wisconsin in 2010, Michigan in 2001).
Michigan held a 10-7 lead late in 2017 until Alex Hornibrook connected on two passes to A.J. Taylor for 75 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown. The Badgers pulled away to triumph 24-10.
Michigan come out on top in a top-10 matchup in 2016, stifling the run game en route to a 14-7 victory.
It’ll be brisk. Accuweather projects 43 degrees for the evening with a negligible chance at rain.
Jacket time, or extra Bell’s Two-Hearted for those without one.
Michigan offense vs Wisconsin defense
THE PASSING GAME
The current state of the Wisconsin pass defense:
Three corners are listed as questionable — Travion Blaylock (leg), Deron Harrell (upper body) and Caesar Williams (leg). Safety D’Cota Dixon sustained a foot injury last week against Nebraska, and fellow starter Scott Nelson is suspended for the first half due to targeting.
That leaves freshman Faion Hicks and sophomore Madison (how fitting) Cone on the perimeter.
The pass rush is also wounded. Starting defensive end — and name of the year candidate — Isaiahh Loudermilk is out (leg), while outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel is also questionable (leg).
After losing Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson — solid corners also known for their hoodies — to graduation, the mounting ailments have exacerbated coverage issues.
The No. 74 S&P pass defense allowed mediocre pass offenses in Iowa and Nebraska to both clear over 250 yards. In fact, Adrian Martinez threw for 382 yards and two scores. For context, this is the same guy that went 7-of-15 for 22 yards against Michigan.
Meanwhile, Shea Patterson is seen as the No. 2 quarterback in the conference per Pro Football Focus. In particular, he’s the best on deep shots.
He’s been able to do that with a vastly improved array of pass blockers.
That stat was before facing Jesse Aniebonam, Byron Cowart and the Maryland front. Michigan allowed zero sacks and only a handful of hurries last Saturday against a top-25 sack unit.
Meanwhile. Badger defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard hasn’t been able to pressure the quarterback. His defense ranks No. 118 in sack rate (3.4-percent). Without needing to keep a back for pass protection, expect a now-healthy Chris Evans to catch passes out of the backfield.
This is a simple call. With time, receivers will get separation against an inexperienced and underperforming secondary. Patterson can continue his upward trajectory since Week 1.
THE RUN GAME
Leonhard’s defense is slightly better against the run, sliding in at No. 52 per S&P.
One of his main assets is senior planetoid nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Standing a stout 6-foot-2, 342 pounds, Cesar Ruiz might have problems getting leverage on him, therefore having problems getting to the second level.
The other two bullets are senior inside linebackers Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards. They are the one-two leaders in tackles with 29 and 26, and the latter is a returning first-team All-American. They also combine for 10 tackles for loss.
Connelly is your stereotypically tough-nosed Wisconsin backer in the mold of Chris Borland. Edwards, meanwhile, is a master of making himself small to avoid blocking linemen.
Watch him slip Ruiz last year at the 3:48 mark below.
This is a different Wolverine line in 2018.
In the last two weeks, Michigan has chipped away for over four yards a pop against Northwestern and Maryland. The former is the No. 16 rush defense nationally, and Karan Higdon and company would have cleared 200 yards if not for the phantom holding call.
An underrated loss for the Badgers? Former linebackers coach Tim Tibesar now coordinates for Oregon State. He was the architect behind the linebacker factory in Madison.
Without him, there’s little depth behind Connelly and Edwards, as backup Griffin Grady is also questionable.
It won’t be a bulldozing, but expect something similar or better to the 160-yard effort (sacks removed) against the Badgers in 2016.
Michigan defense vs Wisconsin offense
THE PASSING GAME
Hornibrook has eliminated the excessive turnovers of 2017, where his interception rate was worst in the conference.
This year, he’s completing 64-percent of his throws for 963 yards, seven touchdowns and just two picks.
His main target is A.J. Taylor, who leads the team with 354 yards on just under 20 a target. Danny Davis has regressed since his promising start in 2017, hauling in only eight balls for 90 yards.
The rest of his targets are a smattering of tight ends and fullbacks. Not included there is injured starter Zander Neuville, though he’s a glorified sixth linemen.
Jake Ferguson is second on the Badgers with 213 yards and two scores, while H-back Garrett Groshek has chipped in 108 and a lone touchdown.
Despite three All-Americans on the line, Chryst’s offense allows sacks on 5.4 percent of drop backs — only No. 72 nationally.
Either Lavert Hill or David Long should contain Taylor, and with Rashan Gary returning from his AC joint boo boo, the pass rush should get Hornibrook uncomfortable.
Don Brown’s defense allows only 134 passing yards a game, which is best in the country. This is not the offense to exploit that.
THE RUN GAME
This should be strength against strength, but Michigan’s uncertain defensive tackle situation could create a mismatch.
Michael Dwumfour limped off the field last Saturday. Carlo Kemp has a balky foot. Aubrey Solomon has sat since the season opener, though he has practiced recently.
Against the likes of Michael Deiter, Tyler Biadasz, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards, this is not the week to throw out newbies such as Donovan Jeter and Aidan Hutchinson for extended time. Lawrence Marshall and Bryan Mone will have to stick on the field for extended minutes.
This leads us to nation’s No. 3 rushing leader Jonathan Taylor. He has 849 yards through five games, including 221 against the Cornhuskers last week.
At 5-foot-11, 221 pounds, he’ll be a load for Devin Bush and the linebackers. In 2017, he gained 132 yards in the Michigan game, though most of those came late in the fourth quarter against a gassed defense.
Chryst boasts the nation’s No. 3 S&P rush offense, while Brown throws his No. 6 rush defense back at him. Without a full rotation on the interior, Taylor could find himself on the second level with a head of steam.
That’s bad news for Michigan.
ISN’T THAT SPECIAL
Rafael Gaglianone is one of the nation’s best, albeit rotund kickers. He’s 5-for-6 on the year, though his only miss cost Wisconsin versus Brigham Young.
Punter Anthony Lotti averages less than 40 yards a boot. With Will Hart launching sky bombs, this gives Michigan a decided field position advantage in a game that will certainly emphasize it.
While holding advantages in most areas, the situation at defensive tackle plays right into Wisconsin’s hands.
Patterson and his weapons should make a statement against a depleted secondary, while Higdon and Evans should have room to replicate recent success.
However, Chryst’s avenue to victory is ball-control offense. If Taylor and his elite line can keep the ball out of the offense’s hands, this is a 50-50 game in the fourth. The Badgers survived in the clutch in Kinnick Stadium, so don’t expect them to fold in Ann Arbor under similar duress.
With that said, Michigan should win. With a competent quarterback in Madison last year, the Wolverines possibly finish the upset bid. With his best signal-caller since Andrew Luck under center now and the buzz of an energetic home night crowd behind him, Harbaugh nabs his biggest pelt since 2016...also against the Badgers.
Michigan 24, Wisconsin 16