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Tale of the Tape: Wisconsin 2018

Michigan controlled the first 40 minutes in Madison last year, but faded late. Quarterbacks and safeties were mostly to blame. What needs to improve for the Wolverines to hold serve at home in 2018?

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

Michigan entered Madison, Wisconsin last year on a three-game win streak, determined to redeem big-game struggles against Michigan State and Penn State.

The Wolverines won the first two-thirds of the game, but eventually collapsed in the final frame.

Michigan’s demise hinged on two positions: quarterback and safety. The chances the Wolverines hold serve at home against the Badgers possibly rests on improvement in these two areas.

Today’s Tale of the Tape looks back at those failings, and other aspects of the 24-10 road loss. It’s all an effort to show who needs to step up when the Badgers visit the Big House on Oct. 13.

Michigan offense vs. Wisconsin defense

It’s unfair to knock Brandon Peters for his performance against Wisconsin last year. A redshirt freshman going into Camp Randall Stadium in only his third career start? Against the nation’s No. 3 S&P defense?

With this context, this is not a Peters bashing, but rather an understanding the offensive staff probably needed someone more experienced or dynamic to get out of Madison alive last year — unfortunately, that last part is almost meant literally.

Shea Patterson may be the dictionary definition of “more dynamic.” In all fairness to Peters, though, he outperformed Wisconsin’s now-junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook for large stretches. Peters completed 9-of-18 passes for 157 yards and no picks, while Hornibrook was 9-of-19 for 143 yards, one touchdown and one pick.

However, the latter made game-changing throws, while the former failed to find a handful of open receivers for big plays. These few plays made a tight game...not that.

While the wideouts received legitimate flack last year, they did get open against a top 10 pass defense. Peters overthrows Kekoa Crawford, who has a step on fourth round draft pick Nick Nelson, at 0:08 in the above clip.

At 0:40, Zach Gentry sneaks behind the right side of the secondary, but Peters instead dumps the ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones for a three-yard hitch.

Most egregiously, he misses a wide-open Gentry again, under throwing a pass late for a harmless incompletion (2:00).

He likely left at least seven points on the field with those misfires. Speaking of leaving points on the field...

In a game Michigan lost by two scores, the quarterback play directly diminished four scoring chances.

With Shea Patterson’s productive track record in the SEC West, it’s fair to say his presence will take advantage of more big play opportunities. The question is: will the transfer quarterback who threw nine picks in seven games in 2017 give the Wisconsin offense more chances to build a lead?

The Badgers return two players that gave Michigan fits last year in safety D’Cota Dixon and linebacker T.J. Edwards.

While Dixon only recorded four tackles, he added another man in the box to stifle a Michigan run game that had averaged 288 yards on the ground in the previous three outings.

The very first play of the clip, he dips under a Zach Gentry block to limit Karan Higdon to two yards. Without his efforts there, Higdon would have bust loose. He does the same thing at 0:20, flying from off the backside edge to stop Higdon for no gain.

He flashed his ability to take on tight ends and fullbacks all day. At 1:24, he stops Henry Poggi cold, not giving the departed Kareem Walker enough room to shake off Edwards. The 5-foot-10, 204-pound box safety stoned Poggi again at 2:05.

The strength gains from the new Ben Herbert regime loom large here. There’s no excuse for a man of Poggi’s size to lose multiple matchups to a safety like Dixon. Ben Mason and true freshman Ben VanSumeren must thrive in games like these.

The star of the afternoon was T.J. Edwards, who filled the stat sheet with 11 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and a sack. Look at the following two plays to understand what he did.

At 3:08, he toys with a pulling Cesar Ruiz, discarding him with a tiny feint to stuff Walker for a loss. He’s the top-ranked linebacker for 2019 on DraftScout for a reason, finding ways to evade larger blockers with his athleticism.

He further demonstrates sideline-to-sideline mobility by chasing down Peters at 2:30. Patterson has to be able to stress Edwards and company with his feet in the same way J.T. Barrett did in the Big Ten title game.

Overall, Michigan lacked the development at quarterback, blocking strength and athleticism to attack Wisconsin’s elite defense last year. Defensive coordinator Brian Leonhard returns only three starters — including Dixon and Edwards — so Michigan’s simultaneous ascension on offense may turn the tables.

Michigan defense vs. Wisconsin offense

Don Brown’s defense was on pace last year for an even better performance against Paul Chryst’s offense than in 2016. In the Big House, Hornibrook sputtered the Badgers to 159 total yards.

As mentioned before, 2017 Wisconsin had failed to crack the century mark in total yards as the end of the third quarter neared. Suddenly, Hornibrook started impersonating Steve Young. You know, left handed gunslingers.

Prior to the drive, Hornibrook’s biggest impact on the game was an interception to Devin Bush that led to a tie-breaking field goal. He infamously had the nation’s worst interception rate at 5.8-percent going into the afternoon, and his 5-for-10 for 44-yard clunker up to point hardly inspired confidence.

Suddenly, his confidence started to soar.

He finished 4-for-9 for 99 yards and the previously mentioned touchdown to A.J. Taylor. Not stellar, but his throws at 3:47 and 4:50 are ones Peters couldn’t execute earlier.

Each of these throws capitalize on the merely adequate play of Michigan’s safeties a year ago. Khaleke Hudson gets beat on the touchdown, Jaylen Kelly-Powell gets beat on the 52-yard throw preceding that, and Josh Metellus loses a slot fade battle in the last example.

Whereas Dixon wiped out much of the Michigan ground game, Wisconsin aerially bombarded the Wolverine safeties with impunity. All these talented wideouts return from last year’s No. 7 S&P pass attack.

The Penn State preview will certainly cover this, but the difference between a top 10 defense and the No. 1 national defense will be the coverage development of Tyree Kinnel, Metellus and friends.

These big gainers changed the momentum, energizing the rest of a previously stagnant attack. Jonathan Taylor ripped off a 52-yard run to flip field position, and with Michigan finally needing to devote more resources to the interior, Chryst hit Brown with a 32-yard reverse for essentially a game-clinching score.

Before this surge, however, Michigan’s defensive line dominated a Wisconsin front boasting three returning All-Americans.

Three of this year’s starters — Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and Aubrey Solomon — combined for four tackles for loss, albeit only a half sack. Even with the big fourth quarter, Taylor and the backs tallied 41 yards below their season average.

Solomon, in particular, had a minor breakout against the best line he faced as a freshman. He racked up four tackles, including a powerful one for loss after ripping past All-American guard Beau Benzschawel (skip to 47:10 in the link).

While sturdy on run defense, neither Gary nor Winovich got to Hornibrook, thanks to All-American tackles Michael Deiter and David Edwards. With three strong receivers in Quintez Cephus, Taylor and Danny Davis back in action in 2018, the pass rush needs to harass the passer to prevent them from getting touches.

There’s not much else to the defense’s performance in Madison. A very young defense laid waste to a top 40 S&P offense until the offense sapped the whole team of a realistic chance at winning. While all the talk in Ann Arbor is about the bevy of returning starters, 10 starters come back for the Badgers’ offense.

This matchup will be an absolute war on Oct. 13, just like Harbaugh and Chryst like it.

Final thoughts

Jim Harbaugh and Paul Chryst have the best type of rivalry going at the moment. Mutual respect, similar styles of play and a 1-1 record the last two matchups.

Wisconsin pulls away to win by 14 last year, and Michigan wins by 16 (with competent kickers) in 2016. Both games were won by the more consistent defense, and this is where its hard to pick against an improved Michigan team in 2018.

Chryst not only returns only three starters on defense, but he lost linebacker coaching phenom Tim Tibesar to Oregon State. This is the guy that mentored T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel and the smorgasbord of great Badger ‘backers.

Compare that to Don Brown’s increasing chamber of defensive bullets for next year, and it’s an easy pick.

The biggest hesitation is the ball security of Shea Patterson. When Michigan loses in the Harbaugh era, it’s due to losing the turnover battle. Ohio State in 2016. Michigan State in 2017. This lines up as a revenge game where the Wolverines will play a style they see daily in practice, but there’s worry about providing free points off giveaways.

I reserve the right to back off this prediction should the turnover bug rear its ugly head early this season, but right now, look for Harbaugh to hold serve at home.