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No. 14 Michigan had a true test of adversity last week against Rutgers in a game it won 20-13. This week will surely be another test, more than likely a bigger test, when the maize and blue travel to Madison to take on the Wisconsin Badgers.
The Badgers are sitting at 1-2 on the year after losing two tough contests to Penn State and Notre Dame, and the Wisconsin offense is in disarray.
Wisconsin is the No. 112 scoring offense in the nation averaging 19 points-per-game and it’s mostly due to the less than adequate play by quarterback Graham Mertz — he has thrown one touchdown compared to six interceptions this season.
In the last 18 contests the Badgers have played, they are only 9-9. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is hoping to change that narrative soon, and it starts with Michigan.
“Numbers don’t lie,” Leonhard said. “That’s what we are right now. Can we be significantly more than that? Yes. Have we in the near past been more than this? Absolutely. It’s on us to change the narrative right now. We have to show up in crucial moments and find ways to get victories. It’s as simple as that. No one feels bad for the Wisconsin Badgers right now. It’s on us to regain the confidence and go out there and change what the past has been.”
Leonhard believes that what he has seen from Penn State and Notre Dame will be similar to what Michigan will throw at them. He obviously knows that Michigan has been committed to the run game, but he believes that’s because nobody has made the Wolverines uncomfortable enough to go away from what’s been working.
“It really is similar to what we’ve seen from Penn State and Notre Dame this year,” said Leonhard. “They are committed to the run, obviously, the numbers say they are very committed to the run. Off of that, they understand you have to do certain things to stop and slow down the run. They are going to create one-on-one matchups for their receivers. They like their skills, they have a talented group of receivers and tight ends, and as good of backs as we will play this year. It’s not just ground and pound – obviously, they’ve gotten leads where they’ve been able to commit to it — they haven’t really been uncomfortable and haven’t had to put much on the quarterback, but it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.”
Leonhard talked about what he has seen from Cade McNamara this season and what kind of things Michigan will look to do in the passing game. Leonhard fully believes that the Wolverines are capable of throwing the ball if they need to.
“It’s a lot of vertical shots in the pass game, they are trying to isolate corners, safeties, DBs (defensive backs) down the field,” Leonhard said. “The scheme is there, they just really haven’t had to get out of the comfort zone because they have had leads. I’m not falling for the trap that you have to go all in to stop the run because they can’t throw the ball. That narrative isn’t true — they haven’t had to yet. They haven’t been forced into situations where they are forced to throw. Their defense is playing great right now, and they are just able to stay straightforward in what they’re doing.”
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Head coach Paul Chryst has similar sentiments about the Michigan offense. He believes that they have a very physical offense and they will make Wisconsin play honest football.
“I think they have a really good offense,” Chryst said. “I think they have a number of different weapons that they can play up-front, and I think they have enough skill players that will make you defend the whole field. That’s always a sign of a good offense, you have to defend the whole field. You can’t just put your attention to one thing or another – you have to play honest, right? I think that’s where they do a good job, and I think they are doing it with good football players. That combination, I think they are good, they are really good. It will be a good challenge for our defense.”
Switching to the other side of the ball, Chryst believes the Wolverine defense plays really fast, and they are always around the ball. He knows that Macdonald will switch his looks up to try and confuse Graham Mertz, and this will be a good challenge for the Badger offense.
“I think certainly there are a lot of individuals that you recognize and know, because of those two things you respect the type of players they are,” said Chryst. “I think right now, they appear to me when you watch them, a defense that is playing really fast. Which to me, means that are confident in what they are being asked to do. I think good defense do this, they give you different looks and not stand in one place and make it easy on you. I think they have some really good football players and a good scheme. They are playing confident and flying around – they got guys that make plays.”
You can watch Michigan against Wisconsin on Saturday at noon EDT on Fox.