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No. 14 Michigan at Wisconsin Week 5 Preview: The proof is in the performance

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For all intents and purposes, the season actually starts now.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Before the year began, the Washington game looked like the tone-setter for Michigan, offering a big early test to either validate or wipe away the feelings from 2020. Regardless of how that game went though, Wisconsin was always going to be the first real test to actually provide a measuring stick. Both teams look weaker than they did heading into the year, but the point still stands. On Saturday, the Wolverines get to prove if they are actually for real.

This is the sixth and final year of the Michigan-Wisconsin division crossover pairing, with the Cornhuskers swapping in next season (what a trade for the maize and blue). The home team had won each of the past four meetings before last year’s embarrassment in Ann Arbor. Of course, each week the Wolverines are proving more and more than 2020 meant nothing, and a win this weekend in Madison would essentially lock that theory in.

The Badgers have suffered a pair of losses already, but this is still a dangerous team. S&P+ puts them 11th, just three spots below Michigan, with the fourth-best defense in the country. This means that the offense is nothing special (50th), however, which gives the visitors a great shot at earning that elusive big road win. There is no understating how important this game is for Jim Harbaugh.

No. 14 Michigan Wolverines (4-0, 1-0) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (1-2, 0-1)

Date: Saturday, October 2
Time: 12:00 pm ET
Location: Madison, WI
TV: FOX

The Michigan offense was cruising last week, running all over the place in the first half while throwing infrequently but efficiently as always. That quickly changed after halftime, and that type of performance will not work at all against the Badgers. The Wolverines can probably get by with a minimal pass game, but Cade McNamara will need to be far more accurate for it to work.

It does not matter if McNamara was hurt or rattled or whatever was causing him to be so terrible in the second half last week. If he keeps looking this way to start the game on Saturday, the coaching staff needs to have him on a short leash. This is not a game that will allow for Michigan to rack up a bunch of three-and-outs and still find a way to win, and hopefully the coaches will not be stubborn should things go south quickly.

Defensively, the Wolverines found themselves in bend-but-not-break mode throughout the competitive portion of last week. Rutgers continued to gain yards after contact on the ground or pick up free chunks on quick passes time and time again. When the field was condensed in the red zone, the defense was mostly able to hold, but this is a dangerous strategy against Wisconsin. The solution here is to sell out against the run — Michigan cannot be scared of a pass game averaging under 200 yards per game*.

*Yes, the Wolverines also fall in this camp, but when the rushing offense ranks fifth in the entire country, this is a little more acceptable. Also, 40.3 PPG vs. 19.0 PPG...

Matchup Highlights

The playcalling was frustrating as always, as Michigan refused to attack the outside with its running backs and for the nth year in a row has no semblance of read options available to the quarterbacks. McNamara does not need to throw a ton to win (though he does need to throw well when asked to), but that means the run game must be more creative than what was displayed against Rutgers after halftime. Get Blake Corum to stretch the field, involve A.J. Henning, and work smarter not harder against the stout Wisconsin defensive front that is allowing just 25 (!!) rush yards per game.

This is likely going to be a low-scoring affair, and if Michigan gets the lead early then a win is going to become pretty realistic. That is because Graham Mertz has been not great against non-Eastern Michigan competition, throwing just one touchdown and six picks against Penn State and Notre Dame. He is inaccurate and should not scare even this secondary. The Wolverines need to be aggressive by playing against the run and getting as much pressure as possible. Making Mertz have to throw to move the ball should be a winning formula on Saturday.