The three-game gauntlet of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State is here, which means it’s time we find out whether or not Michigan is a contender or a pretender.
Here’s what you should be watching for during Saturday night’s game:
Contain Jonathan Taylor
Wisconsin enters the contest with the nation’s No. 25 overall offense, totaling 480.2 yards per game and the nation’s No. 45 scoring offense, averaging 33.8 points per game. Much of that success comes from sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor. Through five games, Taylor leads the entire country in rushing yards per game with 169.8, and is third in total rushing with 849 yards (both players ahead of him have played six games).
Taylor is an elite player, a Heisman Trophy contender and future NFL back that runs behind one of the most experienced and talented offensive lines in the nation. Michigan will need to slow him down and make the Badgers beat them through the air.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook hasn’t thrown nearly as many interceptions as last year, but he still isn’t the type of quarterback that is going to blow away a defense, especially one as good as Michigan’s.
The good news for the Wolverines is they still have the No. 1 defense in the nation, allowing 230.5 yards per game. They also have the No. 6 rushing defense, giving up just 96.5 yards per game, and the No. 1 passing defense, allowing 134.0 yards through the air.
Wisconsin may have the best offense Michigan has seen this season, but the Maize & Blue have a clear advantage here.
Win The Sack Battle
Not surprisingly, Michigan’s defense has had success getting to the quarterback this fall, averaging three sacks per game (18 total), good for No. 20 nationally. What is surprising, however, is Wisconsin has not. The Badgers, who averaged three sacks per game in 2017, have just five sacks so far in 2018, good for one per game (No. 118 nationally).
If Michigan’s offensive line can keep quarterback Shea Patterson upright and allow him the time to find open receivers or scramble, that bodes extremely well for the Wolverines. The Badgers have a middle of the pack secondary, and the defense as a whole hasn’t been nearly as spectacular as it was a year ago.
Wisconsin and Michigan have both allowed eight sacks this season, Michigan in six games and Wisconsin in five. If the game sticks to the trend we’ve seen so far this fall, it’ll be Hornibrook that feels the pressure more than Patterson.
Big Game Breakthrough
Let’s face it, it’s hard to fully trust Michigan will play well and win a big game against a ranked opponent.
Michigan laid an egg against Notre Dame in the opener, went 0-4 last year against teams that finished ranked in the AP Poll and lost the final two games of the 2016 season that came against ranked teams (Ohio State and Florida State). The last win Michigan has over a team that ended the year ranked came on Oct. 1, 2016 against Wisconsin (it also was the third win in a row over a team that would finish the year ranked).
Long story short, it’s been a while since Michigan fans have been able to feel good about their team in a big game. The numbers suggest the Wolverines can and should win, but given the recent history nothing can be taken for granted. A win this weekend before traveling to East Lansing would be monumental in terms of momentum for the team and (maybe more so) the fans.
The path to a winner-take-all game against Ohio State at the end of the season is there. It’s time for Michigan to put up or shut up.