|Image: Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel|
The Saturday, October 1st meeting between Michigan and Wisconsin will be the first that finds both teams ranked in the top ten nationally in what will be their 65th head to head match up, with Michigan holding a comfortable 49-14-1 lead in the series; Having won 7 of the last 11.
Much of what has been written about the two programs in the previous couple weeks leading up to Saturday has been remarkably similar in tone and subject matter. Both teams boast much lauded, aggressive defenses. Both have entered their first few games of the season with large questions concerning the quarterback position. Each has a formidable offensive line, and both have had a contribution by committee at the running back spot(s). I suppose the only major difference being that most of the college football world expected Michigan to be where it is at the moment, while Wisconsin did not seem to hold nearly the same amount of promise. So what then are the major differences (if any) between these two teams?? Let’s break them down.
Michigan’s offensive line will face it’s toughest test yet from a front seven that is among the elite in college football. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (also in his first year) plays a style of defense that’s not too dissimilar from that of Don Brown. They are multiple, they blitz often and from all positions. They generally line up in a 3-4 and look to shoot gaps with their extremely talented line-backing core. The name from that group of linebackers that most are familiar with is Vince Biegel*, an impressive player no doubt, but the stand out for me is a player with a certain defensive pedigree that any football fan would be well aware of: T.J. Watt. The younger brother of former Wisconsin All-American and NFL all everything defensive lineman, J.J. Watt. Though he doesn’t have the size of his older brother, he has the same nose for the ball. Racking up 18 tackles in 4 games, with 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
The Wisconsin secondary, though solid is not in the same class as Michigan’s secondary, and also may get outclassed by Michigan’s receivers as well. If Michigan is to win this game, their offensive line must give Wilton Speight time to drop back and exploit what will surely be regular mismatches down field. On the other hand, for that to happen, Michigan must also establish offensive balance with its running game. They don’t have to win the game on the ground, but they have to pick up enough yards to keep the Wisconsin linebackers and secondary honest.
As for what the Michigan defense is going to be up against; expect a Wisconsin offensive line that’s going to show up to play. Their biggest task however is going to be keeping up with the number of highly talented and highly motivated defensive lineman that Michigan’s going to be cycling in all game long. And with the expected addition of Bryan Mone, it could become a war of attrition that definitely favors the Wolverines. If Michigan’s linebackers, with the omnipresent Jabrill Peppers can shut down the Wisconsin run game, which has averaged 184 yards per game (compared to Michigan’s 229), it could make for a very long day for Wisconsin’s pro style, freshman quarterback, Alex Hornibrook. Who so far this season is 29 of 43, with 3 TDs and 2 INTs, for 378 total yards passing.
The third facet of the game, in which I think Michigan holds a distinct advantage is special teams. Opposing coaches seem to have collectively come to the conclusion that kicking anywhere near the vicinity of Peppers is a terrible idea, but Jourdan Lewis will be there waiting, chomping at the bit for his chance to cost special teams coaches some sleep, and break the hearts and will of traveling Badger fans. And if the special teams units could also get their hands on a punt or a fumble, it could quickly turn a competitive contest into a complete rout.