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Inside the Numbers: Michigan meets No. 13 Wisconsin

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If things don’t change, this one could get ugly.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Notch another mark into the loss column as the Michigan Wolverines move to 1-2 on the season following Saturday’s defeat at the hands of the Indiana Hoosiers. For the second week in a row, the Wolverines’ secondary was picked apart by an opposing quarterback. The overall defense looked undisciplined and had little to show for after allowing 38 points to the Hoosiers.

Now, it’s on to Wisconsin who will have missed their last two games due to a COVID outbreak within the program. Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said on Monday that they expect to play the game on Saturday at Michigan since they feel they have control over the spread of the virus. The most notable name in the group of positive cases was starting quarterback Graham Mertz, and it seems that Mertz could play this weekend. Let’s take a look inside the numbers to see how these two teams stack up.

Michigan Offense vs Wisconsin Defense

The Passing Game

Down a couple of scores, the Wolverines let it loose with Joe Milton in the loss to Indiana. In fact, Michigan put it on the ground only four times in the second half while Milton dropped back to pass 24 times. The deep ball was also much more prevalent as Milton was 4-of-14 on passes that were over 20 or more yards in the air on Saturday according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced stats. Two of those balls were intercepted and ultimately proved costly in the game.

Milton completed 8-of-10 passes in the 10-20 yard range which accounted for 134 of his 344 passing yards in Saturday’s loss.

His main target on these passes? Ronnie Bell who accounted for 149 yards on six receptions, just one yard shy of his career-high of 150 from last season, caught the ball deeper than 10 yards on every reception. His longest of the day was 52 yards.

Bell was one of five Michigan receivers with receptions of 20 or more yards on Saturday. If Milton hadn’t thrown those two interceptions, there were times where it felt the Wolverines could sneak their way back into this game.

Let’s see how the Wolverines rank nationally and in the Big Ten:

  • Michigan is averaging 289.7 passing yards per game tied for 3rd in the Big Ten and 26th in the country with Michigan State.
  • Milton has completed 60.7% of his passes, 9th in the Big Ten and 72nd in the nation.
  • The Wolverine offensive line has allowed five sacks in three games moving them to the bottom half of the conference, No. 9 in the Big Ten.

Wisconsin’s numbers may be a bit inflated after they held Illinois and former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters to just 87 yards in their 45-7 win in their one (and only) game of the season.

Their secondary is a veteran-laden group with junior corners Faion Hicks and Rachad Wildgoose on the outside and senior safeties Eric Burrell and Collin Wilder over the top. Wildgoose was targeted seven times against Illinois and allowed only 3 receptions for 13 yards in the win.

The real reason Wisconsin got it done was because of their pass rush. The team accrued 3 sacks and put Peters under pressure 7 times on 22 dropbacks according to PFF. Peters was just 1-for-7 with 9 yards on those snaps.

Obviously, the Badgers will rank very highly in the country and the Big Ten after playing just one game against a bad team, but here are where they sit as of now:

  • No. 1 in the Big Ten and the country allowing just 87 yards per game.
  • The Badgers are tied for No. 30 in the country averaging 3 sacks per game.
  • No. 2 in the country allowing just a 36.36 completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks.

The Running Game

After a really strong week of 256 yards on the ground against Minnesota, Michigan had 13 against Indiana on Saturday. Now, this was partly because of the deficit they put themselves into, but some of it is also puzzling.

Zach Charbonnet, the Wolverines lead back from a year ago, had just one carry against the Hoosiers. He has only 10 on the season after having 149 attempts in 2019. The sophomore has 77 rushing yards on the season, and 70 of that came on one run against the Golden Gophers.

This speaks a bit to the depth that Michigan has on the roster. Charbonnet is splitting carries with three other backs and Milton has some designed runs from the quarterback spot, too. But, for a guy that averaged 4.9 yards a carry last season, it’s strange how little he has been used in the offense to this point.

After the less than ideal performance on the ground, here is how the Wolverines rank in the conference and the country:

  • Their 140.3 yards per game on the ground is 9th in the Big Ten and 80th in the country.
  • Michigan backs average 5.1 yards per carry, 4th in the Big Ten and 32nd in the country.
  • The Wolverines have scored 8 touchdowns on the ground which is tied for 2nd in the conference.

While Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters was inefficient in the passing game, he had a strong performance on the ground. Peters carried the ball seven times for 75 yards, leading the team on the ground. He played a huge part in Illinois’ 131 rushing yards on the ground against Wisconsin in Week 1.

Seniors Garrett Rand and Isaiah Loudermilk and sophomore Keeanu Benton makeup and athletic defensive line the accounted for six tackles, seven stops, and a forced fumble against Illinois. If the Wolverines aren’t healthy up front these three could disrupt quite a few plays.

Here’s how Wisconsin stacks up after their first game:

  • The Badgers 131 rushing yards allowed per game is 7th in the Big Ten and 48th in the country.
  • Allowed 5.2 yards per attempt to the Illini, ranking them 108th in the country and 13th in the Big Ten.
  • Held Michigan to 40 rushing yards a year ago in the Badgers’ 35-14 win.

Wisconsin Offense vs Michigan Defense

The Passing Game

Even though we’ve seen only one performance from Graham Mertz, he looked as real of a deal as there is. The crazy thing is he only earned the starting gig in his second year due to an injury from 2019 starter Jack Coan in the preseason. So, Mertz takes over and just casually throws for five touchdowns on 20-of-21 completions.

The Badgers also perennially put out one of the best offensive lines in the country and that doesn’t change this season. Cole Van Lanen is one of if not the best left tackle in the Big Ten and is surrounded by upperclassmen offensive lineman in the unit.

Wisconsin lost their best receiver from a year ago, Quintez Cephus, to the NFL Draft going to the Detroit Lions in the fifth round. Left behind is a solid tandem of Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor at the receiver spots; alongside 2019 All-Big Ten honorable mention tight end Jake Ferguson.

Unlike recent history within the Badger program, they will lean much more heavily on their passing game for production and scoring in 2020 while still trying to establish a dominant running game.

Here is how they line up in the Big Ten and NCAA through one game:

  • Mertz’s 95.24% completion against Illinois ranks No. 1 in the country ahead of Ohio State’s Justin Fields at 86.75% through three games.
  • The Badgers’ 248 yards per game is 47th in the country and 8th in the Big Ten.
  • Allowed two sacks in their 45-7 blowout of Illinois. Metz was under pressure on just four of 26 dropbacks according to PFF.

Michigan’s got a lot to figure out in their secondary. Don Brown implemented a couple of zone coverage schemes, but they simply did not work against Michael Penix Jr. and Indiana. Once again the Wolverines leaned on single coverage and were burned on the outside.

The player who is under the most pressure to get right is Vincent Gray. He shows flashes of making the right decisions with a nice pass break up on a third down in the first quarter of the Indiana game, but he has struggled for most of the time on the field. He was targeted 11 times on Saturday and gave up 7 receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown according to PFF.

A name that hasn’t been spoken of much in coverage is Michael Barrett, at the Viper spot, who allowed 8 receptions on 11 targets, lining up at the corner in some single-coverage sets against Indiana last week. He allowed three first downs in coverage of the Hoosier’s Peyton Hendershot on Saturday as Indiana continued to put him out wide, forcing Barrett away from the middle of the field.

The good news is Gemon Green is stabilizing as a starting-caliber corner with just 3 receptions given up on 7 targets. Daxton Hill impressed again shutting down the Hoosiers’ best receiver Whop Philyor in the slot. Philyor had only 3 receptions for 20 yards while Hill was in coverage.

Kwity Paye continues to terrorize opposing quarterbacks with yet another strong performance on Saturday. He earned a 90.5 overall grade by PFF against Indiana with 5 tackles, 4 quarterback hurries, and 2 quarterback hits. Even without recording a sack, he made his presence felt on the field.

Here is how the Wolverines’ passing defense ranks:

  • Allow 57.52% completion, 39th in the country and 4th in the Big Ten
  • Michigan has given up 287.3 yards per game through the air, 13th in the conference, and under three yards away from being worse than Rutgers in last.
  • The Wolverines have 5 sacks this year, all of them came against Minnesota, they are now 9th in the conference because of it.
  • The Wolverines are currently 111th in the country with 8.3 penalties per game and are 126th in penalty yardage averaging 85 yards per contest.

The Running Game

This is not the Wisconsin running game of old. Jonathan Taylor, the leading rusher in Wisconsin’s illustrious history, has moved on to the next level and left little behind in Madison.

After the first game, it looks like it will be a three-horse race in the backfield with Garrett Groshek, Nakia Watson, and Isaac Guerendo. Groshek took 13 carries in Week 1 and rushed for 70 yards, leading the team. Watson, however, had the most carries with 19 and had 62 yards to show for it. Guerendo’s longest carry was for 13 yards and had 36 total on 11 attempts.

If Wisconsin can find a groove with any of these guys and add it to what appears to be an elite passing game, they have a legitimate shot of hanging with some of the best teams in the country.

Here is how the new-look running game pans out for Wisconsin after one game:

  • 4th in the country and 1st in the Big Ten in rushing attempts per game with 54 (again, in a blowout win against Illinois).
  • Their 182 yards per game on the ground is 5th in the Big Ten and 44th in the country.

The loss of Aidan Hutchinson is going to speak volumes in the running game. He did an excellent job of sealing the edge (on top of his impressive pass-rushing skills) in the first two games of the year. Without him, Luiji Vilain will have produce in the running game as he is currently the worst grade run defender on the Wolverines’ roster, according to PFF, with a 50.9 grade.

Josh Ross and Cam McGrone have both done really solid work patrolling the middle in run defense, both with double-digit tackles on the year and 80+ grades by PFF (above-average).

Despite that, two of the better running backs in the conference have done well against Michigan’s defense this season. Stevie Scott had 97 yards and two scores against Michigan last week and Mohammad Ibrahim had 140 yards and two scores against Brown’s defense in Week 1.

It may just be that the holes in the secondary are hiding an issue the Wolverines have in stopping the run as well.

Here’s how the numbers add up across the country:

  • Allowed 124.3 rushing yards per game, 5th in the Big Ten and 39th in the country. Teams ahead of them in the conference are a combined 5-7 including Penn State, Rutgers, and Iowa.
  • Opponents average 3.2 yards per carry against Michigan’s defense, 3rd in the Big Ten and 22nd in the nation.

How Michigan wins:

Michigan wins if the secondary solves its coverage issues and slows down a red-hot Graham Mertz (if he plays). The must limit the penalties. You can’t have five-plus offsides penalties in a game and several holding/pass interference calls to boot.

Offensively, they have to establish a run game and feed Charbonnet and Haskins to take the pressure off Milton. Milton needs to be more accurate down the field and hit some of the wide-open receivers that he missed a week ago. Likewise, receivers need to catch the ball. The 10 drops this season are inexcusable and don’t help when you have a young player behind center.

They will need their best performance of the season to top Wisconsin this weekend if the Badgers are fully healthy.

How Wisconsin wins:

The Badgers win if Graham Mertz plays and has a repeat performance that he had against Illinois, proving it wasn’t a fluke. Mertz has the arm to attack the Michigan corners better than any other quarterback that Michigan has faced this season. Throw it up and force them to make the mistakes they have been making all season.

On the defensive side of the ball, Wisconsin needs to put pressure on Milton. Under pressure this year, Milton has completed just 51.9% of his passes and tends to make inadvertent passes. Making him feel uncomfortable in the pocket is the best way to slow down the Wolverines’ passing game.