With the nation's No. 1 run defense waiting, Michigan football's ground game in peril

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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen shares what he learned in Michigan football's 20-13 win over Rutgers and looks ahead to the Wolverines' game against Wisconsin on Saturday:

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Matchup: No. 14 Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) vs. Wisconsin (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten)

Kickoff: NoonSaturday, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin.

TV/radio: FOX; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).

Line: Badgers by 4½.

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Know the foe

Michigan will face a wounded opponent for its first road game of the season. At 1-2 and reeling from a blowout loss to Notre Dame, the Badgers are off to the worst start since coach Paul Chryst took over in 2015. Wisconsin won at least 10 games in four of Chryst’s first five seasons before stumbling to a 4-3 mark during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaignThrough three games, the Badgers rank tied for 112th in scoring offense with 19 points per game.

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Michigan defensive back Daxton Hill (30) and defensive back Brad Hawkins (2) tackle Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton (18) during the second half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Michigan defensive back Daxton Hill (30) and defensive back Brad Hawkins (2) tackle Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton (18) during the second half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Their season began with a frustrating home loss to Penn State in which Chryst’s club took the lead early in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions scored 10 points in the final 12 minutes to surge ahead and snare a 16-10 win. Wisconsin temporarily righted the ship during a 34-7 trouncing of Eastern Michigan by scoring the first 27 points of the game, but any progress was quickly undone in an embarrassing loss to Notre Dame over the weekend. Mertz threw four interceptions as the Badgers allowed 31 points in the final 14 minutes. Notre Dame blew the game open in a 41-13 romp that has alarm bells ringing in Madison.

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Three things we learned

The running game won’t work against everyone: As quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All noted in their postgame news conferences, Michigan’s defense bailed out the offense in a narrow victory over Rutgers. An offensive line that repeatedly told reporters it would run the ball down team’s throats was stymied after two strong drives to begin the game. Tailback Blake Corum, who entered the game averaging better than 8 yards per carry, managed only 68 yards on 21 attempts for an average gain of 3.2 yards. His backfield partner, Hassan Haskins, accounted for both U-M touchdowns but managed only 41 yards on 12 carries (3.4 yards per attempt). Rutgers coach Greg Schiano invoked the old defensive phrase “see a little, see a lot” to explain how his front seven turned the tide in the trenches after some early exposure to what Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis intended to do. For more than a month the Wolverines said they were a run-first football team. What happens if that identity begins to crack?

Tackling is a problem on the perimeter: The two pillars of Rutgers’ offensive resurgence in the second half were the zone read plays between quarterback Noah Vedral (11 carries, 46 yards) and tailback Isaih Pacheco (20 carries, 107 yards) and quick passes outside the numbers that forced Michigan’s defensive backs to tackle in space. In what is becoming a legitimate issue for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, the secondary was responsible for six of the team’s eight missed tackles Saturday, according to Pro Football Focus. The culprits against Rutgers were cornerback D.J. Turner (two misses), safety Brad Hawkins (two misses), nickelback Daxton Hill (one miss) and cornerback Vincent Gray (one miss). For the season, Hawkins and Gray lead the defense in missed tackles with four each, while Turner is third with three misses and Hill is tied for fourth with a pair. Tackling is one of the hardest things to improve during the regular season because full-contact drills are rare in practice, but the Wolverines must find ways to fix the issue.

Punter Brad Robbins is a weapon: If Michigan’s offense continues to have problems moving the ball against more formidable competition, Robbins will become a critical player in the field position battle. He kicked the ball beautifully against the Scarlet Knights on Saturday and twice pinned the opposition inside the 10-yard line. Robbins flashed terrific control to land his punts close to the goal line with enough side spin and back spin to prevent them from caroming into the end zone for touchbacks. That ability to flip the field led to points for the Wolverines after Rutgers went three and out in the shadow of its own goal post. As Big Ten play becomes a slog, Robbins can exert a significant influence on games.

Threethings to watch

Wisconsin’s run defense is elite: Plenty of things have gone wrong for Chryst’s team in the first month of the season, but stopping the run isn’t one of them. The Badgers will enter Saturday’s date with Michigan boasting the No. 1 run defense in the country by a wide margin. Through three games, Wisconsin is allowing just 23 rushing yards per game. The No. 2 rushing defense in the country, which belongs to San Diego State, is allowing 45.5 rushing yards per game. Despite the blowout loss to Notre Dame, the Badgers turned the Fighting Irish into a one-dimensional team. Notre Dame ran the ball 32 times and gained 3 total yards. Three. It was a remarkable showing by Wisconsin’s front seven that should concern Harbaugh and Gattis after U-M’s offensive line was bested in the trenches by Rutgers. The Badgers posted 10 tackles for loss in their defeat to Notre Dame.

The pocket collapses around Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz (5) during the first quarter of their game Saturday, September 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. Notre Dame beat Wisconsin 41-13.
The pocket collapses around Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz (5) during the first quarter of their game Saturday, September 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. Notre Dame beat Wisconsin 41-13.

Mertz is sloppy with the ball: It’s unlikely Mertz could have played worse in the blowout loss to Notre Dame. The Wisconsin quarterback turned the ball over five times by throwing four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and losing one fumble. He finished with an NFL passer rating of 31.6 in his worst performance of the season. His inability to protect the football bodes well for a Michigan defense that has struggled to generate turnovers under Macdonald. The Wolverines are tied for last in the country in interceptions (one) and tied for 52nd in fumbles recovered (two). But Mertz will give them opportunities. He has nine turnover-worthy plays through three games, according to PFF.

Rushing attack fueled by transfer: Perhaps the lone bright spot for Wisconsin’s offense this season is running back Chez Mellusi, who played two seasons at Clemson before transferring to Madison. A former four-star recruit with scholarship offers from Auburn, Miami, Louisiana State, Notre Dame and Michigan, among others, Mellusi rushed for 427 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons at Clemson. Now a junior, Mellusi has stepped into a leading role for Wisconsin and handled it very well. He ranks 19th in the country in rushing yards per game with 106.3 — roughly 12 yards per game behind U-M’s Corum — and averages 4.62 yards per carry. That he’s reached the end zone only twice is a reflection of Wisconsin’s offensive struggles this season.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Michael is looking for your questions for his next U-M mailbag. Email or tweet at him.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football to be tested by Wisconsin's No. 1 rush defense