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Game Preview: Michigan faces critical test in showdown with Wisconsin

Michigan seeks to stop the bleeding against Wisconsin.

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NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA T

The Michigan Wolverines need something (for goodness sake, anything) positive after how the last two weeks have gone, but the task at hand does not get any easier in the fourth game of the season. The Wisconsin Badgers come to town on Saturday night after not playing a game in three weeks and no doubt are fired up to get back on the field.

The Badgers shut down the program after their opening weekend 45-7 victory over Illinois after COVID-19 positives ran rampant through the football team, which included standout quarterback Graham Mertz. Mertz had just finished off a game where he had only a single incompletion and the Badgers flashed potential of one of the most explosive passing offenses in the country.

We do not yet know if he will be on the field on Saturday, as it seems he is at the tail-end of going through the Big Ten’s protocols. There projects to be a big jumpoff at the position if he is not able to be out there with the speculation being next in line to start would be fourth-string former walk-on Danny Vanden Boom.

One game is really tough to go by, especially given the opponent, but this looks like another talented Wisconsin team that might still be the team to beat in the West division. It comes with a different wrinkle of not quite having a star running back to tote the rock and set the tone for the offense, but it appears they are ready to throw the ball around the field if it comes down to that. And that’s where this week brings about another set of concerns for Michigan.

The Wolverines’ problems in pass coverage are well-documented at this point and it remains to be seen if another week of practice and a return to friendlier confines (relatively speaking of course because there are no fans) can be what the doctor ordered.

The key to this game might be preventing a shootout, but the offense getting back on track is certainly something to watch. After getting just about everything and anything they wanted at Minnesota, Michigan has really struggled to establish an identity the last two weeks. Both Michigan State and Indiana took the ground game away from them and forced the Wolverines to be one-dimensional. Joe Milton has been solid, not great at quarterback, but there is still plenty of reason to believe at some point it might click for him.

A game has rarely felt more important than this one since Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, as a loss that drops them to 1-3 is only going to add more toxic fumes to the air surrounding the program and the short and long-term future. Michigan has handled its business at home twice against Wisconsin under Harbaugh (14-7 in 2016, 38-13 in 2018), so we will have to see how that translates Saturday. Without fans, it changes the equation, but the home team has had the upper hand in this series over the last number of years.

Michigan wins if: We need to see someone other than Kwity Paye apply pressure to the quarterback, especially now that Aidan Hutchinson is out for the year. The problem is that the ball has been coming out quickly from opposing offenses, meaning that the coverage has to hold up on the back end. At this point, it looks clear that they are not quite where they need to be there, but if they can at least take a step forward in this game, Michigan should have a chance to get off the field. If some semblance of a balanced offense returns, Michigan will have a chance to get back into the win column.

Wisconsin wins if: They are able to attack Michigan through the air as other teams have the last few weeks. One can make the argument that this is the best team and best offense Michigan has seen so far, even with so little to go by. The Wolverines will give themselves a chance if they can get off the field in third and long situations and force whoever is in at quarterback into making mistakes.

Prediction: Wisconsin 34, Michigan 27

At the end of the day, Michigan has to earn the benefit of the doubt back. This feels like a team that is currently on the brink of teetering, so they really could use a momentum swing back in the other direction.

Game Info

Teams: Michigan Wolverines (1-2) vs. No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0)

Date: Nov. 14, 2020

Location: Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Television: ABC (Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Maria Taylor on the call)

Streaming: YouTube TV, Hulu, FuboTV (free trial link here)

Radio: 950 AM in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, see affiliate stations here

Spread: Wisconsin -4.5, over/under set at 54 points (Vegas Insider)