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Wisconsin has had three tests thus far this year and has passed just one — against Eastern Michigan. While the defense has been stout, the offense has been an outright liability.
Graham Mertz has been awful. He’s rated as the worst quarterback in the conference by PFF, completing 56.8% of his passes while having thrown just one touchdown to six interceptions. The usually stout offensive line hasn’t exactly helped. Fifth-year left tackle Tyler Beach has the second-lowest pass blocking grade in the Big Ten of any starter (19.1) through Mertz has had the fifth-most average time to throw, again, according to PFF. Still, as a team, Wisconsin has the 10th-rated pass blocking team in the conference, its offense ranks 12th and the pass game ranks dead last. Still, tight end Jake Ferguson and wide receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III are to be feared, assuming Mertz can get the ball to them. Pryor is the only one of the bunch to have a receiving touchdown, which he got against Notre Dame.
While the run blocking is sixth, the Badgers, led by Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi, are 11th in the conference — not exactly what you’d expect from Wisconsin. The rushing offense is averaging 4.33 yards per carry, which is a full yard less than the 2019 outfit that had Jonathan Taylor. Change of pace back Isaac Guerendo is getting more than 7 yards an attempt on 21 carries, so he should garner extra attention. The Badgers have five rushing touchdowns on the year through three games.
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Now, defensively, it’s a different story. In total defense, Wisconsin is rated No. 2, allowing 210.3 yards per game. However, in scoring defense, the Badgers are allowing 21.3 points per game — that number is skewed though, as 14 of Notre Dame’s points last week came on two Mertz pick-sixes. The Badgers are allowing just 23 yards rushing per game and are rated as PFF’s third-best run defense, despite that number (Michigan is No. 1). It doesn’t have much of a pass rush, ranking eighth in the conference, per PFF. And it has the worst PFF-rated coverage unit in the conference with a 61.5 grade (Michigan has an 84.1 grade, by comparison; its last opponent, Rutgers, is seventh with a 79.6). Cade McNamara should have an easier time throwing the ball compared to the second-half last week — though he had little trouble in the first half. The big question remains: will Michigan be able to run the ball? In previous years, the Wolverines entered the game with Wisconsin showing similar numbers and had little success. However, as the year wore on, other teams had better luck (like in 2019 when Ohio State did well twice while Illinois and Nebraska both also had good days on the ground). It’ll be up to the Michigan offensive line to play better this week than it did last week, but the best way to win the game is most likely through the air — which we’ve yet to see the maize and blue do.
Players to watch for include senior linebacker Jack Sanborn (5 TFL and 1 sack), senior defensive end Matt Henningsen (4 TFL and 2 sacks) and sophomore linebacker Nick Herbig (3.5 sacks). Wisconsin, like Michigan, only has one interception on the year, courtesy of junior cornerback Donte Burton. Cornerback Faion Hicks has four passes broken up, leading the team.
Then there’s the intangibles.
Michigan hasn’t won in Madison since 2001 and this is the first road test of the year for the Wolverines. Under Jim Harbaugh, the maize and blue have looked good on the road against lesser competition, but have had little luck against the big dogs — Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Of the four, the sole win has come against the Nittany Lions in 2015. Which Michigan team will show up? The one we’ve seen at home this year or the multi-year road team that falls apart at the first sign of adversity?
This game promises to pit strength-against-strength, but considering the Badgers’ weakness, it’ll be interesting to see if the new-look Michigan defense can take advantage.
NEXT PAGE: Our picks and predictions for the game.
WolverinesWire’s Isaiah Hole and Trent Knoop share what they expect to happen in the game along with two general predictions and a final score prediction.
This game has a completely different feel to me then I thought it would going into Week 5 of the season. Michigan is undefeated and the Badgers somehow have two losses.
The biggest key to this game in my perspective is the trench play. The Wolverines have the fifth-best rushing attack in all of football, and the Badgers have the top-ranked rushing defense in all of football.
Running the ball has been the maize and blue’s identity so far this year, and I believe they will need to run the ball effectively in order to win. I also believe if they can run the ball, then we will see a different Cade McNamara in this game, and he will be able to sling the ball around.
I really like the Wolverines’ defense over the Badgers’ offense in this one as well. Graham Mertz has thrown for six interceptions compared to just one touchdown. We’re accustomed to seeing a powerhouse rushing attack by the Badgers, but this isn’t the same team. It seems that this new Wisconsin team is throwing the ball more than running, and with the slump Mertz is in, it bodes well for Michigan.
I originally had Wisconsin winning this game before the season started. Michigan hasn’t won in Madison since 2001, but now I think that streak ends and the Wolverines are victorious.
Michigan rushes for 150 yards
Graham Mertz throws two interceptions
Michigan 21, Wisconsin 17
I’ve gone back and forth on what I expect to happen here. On one hand, Michigan looks worlds better on paper. On the other, I’ve seen this movie before.
Still, Jim Harbaugh and his staff have been coaching for their proverbial lives and have outmatched every team they’ve faced, even if Rutgers managed a comeback last week. While I don’t think Michigan will have a ton of success running the ball, I do think it’ll be better than expected, thanks to the stellar offensive line. Cade McNamara should have time to throw and I expect the passing game to take off this week as part of the game plan — which is what will, in part, open up the run threat.
Conversely, I think Wisconsin will break open some runs, especially early, but I also anticipate that the Wolverines’ pass rush will be too much for the Badgers’ line to handle, given what we’ve seen this year. If Michigan can pit Aidan Hutchinson on Tyler Beach, it should force Mertz to get rid of the ball quickly, and if defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald continues to mix man and zone coverages, it should confuse Mertz into some customary mistakes.
Of course, there’s the snake-bitten feeling that suddenly the Badgers will look unbeatable, but thus far this season, they’ve not shown that. You are what your film says you are, and thus far, Wisconsin has not played great football. I expect the Badgers to score early in the first scripted drive, but Michigan will adjust and handle adversity better than it did last week. Still, it’ll be a low-scoring game, and whichever offense has the most success against tough defenses wins. I anticipate Wisconsin’s offense will look better, but I also think it’ll make some big mistakes at the wrong moment.
Michigan forces two-plus turnovers
Cade McNamara passes for 250 yards
Michigan 24, Wisconsin 23