No. 14 Michigan leaves Ann Arbor after the first four games of the year as it travels to Madison to take on the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday.
The Badgers steamrolled the Wolverines last season in Ann Arbor when Wisconsin won 49-11 — the worst home loss in Michigan Stadium history. Wisconsin rushed for 341 yards against the Wolverines, and Michigan turned the ball over twice — two interceptions by Joe Milton.
Luckily for Michigan, it’s 2021 and things are looking brighter for the maize and blue. Michigan is 4-0 and it is looking to beat Wisconsin in Madison for the first time since 2001, when Hayden Epstein kicked a game-winner to win 20-17.
Unfortunately, for the Badgers, it’s 2021 and things have not looked very good so far. Wisconsin is 1-2 after losing to Penn State and Notre Dame this season, but it will be ready to right the ship on Saturday.
This game will be the battle of the trenches: the explosive Michigan running offense, which is fifth nationally, is going to up against the No. 1 run defense from the Badgers.
Here are three keys to the game.
Win the trenches
Photo: Isaiah Hole
It doesn’t get much better than this: old-school Big Ten football, ‘battle of the trenches.’
Michigan has the No. 5 rushing offense in football, averaging 290.8 yards-per-game while Wisconsin has the No. 1 run defense in all of football, allowing 23 yards-per-game.
Through four games, the Wolverines have lived and thrived by the rushing attack. Cade McNamara has only attempted 53 passes in four games, but Michigan hasn’t really been in a spot where it’s needed McNamara to throw the ball to win, save for the second half against Rutgers, though the Wolverines never trailed.
The Badgers’ defensive identity has been stopping the run, obviously. In the three contests against Penn State, Eastern Michigan, and Notre Dame they allowed 50, 16, and nine yards respectively. While Wisconsin has allowed teams to somewhat throw the ball on it, it isn’t allowing teams to do anything on the ground.
This is going to be the first big test Michigan has faced from a team from a run defense perspective. Rutgers was a good starting point, as the Wolverines only ran for 112 yards in the game, but the Scarlet Knights aren’t the Badgers upfront.
This has to be the biggest key for Michigan, its offensive line needs to win the trenches and allow the running backs to do their thing to control the game.
Keep Graham Mertz in a slump
Photo: Isaiah Hole
Not all Michigan fans are happy with the Wolverine passing attack, but it could be much, much worse, it could be Wisconsin’s.
Quarterback Graham Mertz, the former five-star recruit, has had an abysmal start to his season. Mertz has only thrown one touchdown compared to six interceptions in just three games.
The Badgers average 197 passing yards-per-game, and according to PFF, Wisconsin has the 122nd-ranked passing game in the nation with a 46.1 grade — there are only 130 teams.
Mostly due to its quarterback play, but Wisconsin is one of the most turnover-plagued teams in the nation. The Badgers have turned the football over nine times, which ranks 116th in the NCAA.
Michigan can’t allow this to be the game that Mertz breaks out and turns into the big-time quarterback he was supposed to be — we saw glimpses of what he could be last season in the first couple of games.
The Wolverines need to get to Mertz early — he has been sacked four times this year — and play some mind games. The Wolverines have only forced three turnovers on the season, and this could be a game where that number rises.
Don't let Camp Randall play a big factor in the game
Photo: Isaiah Hole
This is the first away game of the year for Michigan, and for some of these players, it will be their first experience ever in college playing in front of opposing fans — McNamara and Blake Corum for example.
Camp Randall is already a hard stadium for the opposing team to play in with how loud the crowd gets, and it’s just a tough environment altogether.
Michigan is trying to throw crowd noise into its practices this week to try and mimic what it’ll face on Saturday, but you can’t really experience that until you get into the game enviorment.
This very well could be the game that Cade McNamara is finally going to be called upon to win with his arm, and to be that field general that the coaching staff believes he can be.
As mentioned before, the Wisconsin run defense is stout, but the passing defense is beatable. The Badgers allow 187.3 yards-per-game thru the air, and PFF ranks the secondary as the 97th unit in the nation with a 61.5 grade.
If Michigan and McNamara don’t allow the crowd noise and environment get to them, then it’s possible this could be the game that Michigan fans have been waiting on from McNamara.