The Michigan Wolverines have one of college football’s marquee games in week four, when they travel to open their Big Ten slate on the road at Wisconsin. It’s a matchup of No. 11 versus No. 13 (per the AP Poll) and a team that has been clicking on all cylinders en route to outscoring foes by 110-0 against a league rival that has underwhelmed to this point and needed double-overtime to escape Army at home.
Pro Football Focus’ college power rankings list U-M at No. 9 in the land and Wisconsin at No. 18.
They note that the winner will be considered “the class of the Big Ten behind Ohio State” and that “this game will come down to quarterback play, with Wisconsin having a better passer rating when clean and under pressure than the Wolverines have had in 2019. With only one turnover-worthy throw, Jack Coan has done what is needed to win so far in 2019. If he can deliver downfield while minimizing mistakes, the Badgers should be in a position to win on Saturday.”
They reiterated the point on quarterbacks when justifying where they ranked the Wolverines.
“Shea Patterson needs to bottle up his early-season performance against Middle Tennessee and forget about his home game against Army,” they wrote. “If he puts up another passing grade close to 86.2, the Wolverines should be able to cover and most likely emerge victorious on the road this Saturday. Things do not let up for Michigan as they have the tenth most difficult rest of season schedule and the second most difficult when removing SEC teams.”
More of what they’re saying around the internet about the Wolverines is below:
Both the Badgers and Wolverines are coming off bye weeks and have therefore played only two games. But they’ve left us with both limited and lasting impressions.
If we ranked teams purely on how they’ve looked this season, ignoring any previous impressions or assumptions, Wisconsin would be the No. 1 team in the country right now. The Badgers humiliated USF and Central Michigan, outscoring them by 110 points and outgaining them by 819 yards. The next points they allow will be the first since the first quarter of last year’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl. They have been devastating, albeit against teams ranked 86th and 119th, respectively, in SP+.
Michigan, meanwhile, is 2-0, but the Wolverines are still threatening to steal the early-season Existential Crisis title from USC. They looked decent enough in a 40-21 win over Middle Tennessee but needed a missed field goal attempt at the end of regulation and an overtime turnover to survive Army. Harbaugh announced his intention to modernize his offense this offseason, bringing in offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, but results have been lacking so far.
It’s still early, though, and Michigan is still unbeaten. It’s not too late to find traction, but it might be if they don’t find it Saturday.
As tempting as it might be, don’t eliminate the loser [of Michigan-Wisconsin]. What if they face each other again for the Big Ten title and Saturday’s loser wins it all? (See: Oklahoma vs. Texas, 2018).
Yes, at some point, Michigan’s offense needs to find its pulse, and yes, Wisconsin needs to “play somebody,” but teams have a tendency to look dramatically different between now and November.
Wisconsin enters this game with home-field advantage, a Heisman Trophy hopeful at running back and an opportunity to change everything you thought you knew about the Big Ten race. Ohio State remains the league front-runner (49%, according to FPI), but Wisconsin is the only other school with more than a 10% chance to win the conference. With a win on Saturday, that would increase to 30%. The Badgers face both Michigan and Ohio State (Oct. 26) in crossover games, giving them a chance to prove they’re the best in the league even before the Big Ten title game.
Or … Michigan can make a statement that it’s finally ready to contend under Jim Harbaugh.
After scoring 14 points in regulation against Army on Sept. 7, the Wolverines went back into the workshop through an open date to try and deliver on the promise of newfound dynamism in first-year coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense. But the week off from competition also provided more time for media critics, frustrated fans — and frustrated players — to dwell on the shaky showing against Army.
“It was a win on paper,” safety Josh Metellus said. “It wasn’t a win for us.”
That strikes a different tone from Patterson saying there would be no apology for being 2-0. Then again, Patterson is a cocksure guy, noticeably shorter than his listed 6-foot-2 height but possessing an abundance of confidence.
It’s a lifetime of quarterback confidence, really. Patterson joked that his self-assuredness was rocked a bit in fifth grade when his father was his coach, but not at all since. He’s been all over the map, literally, as a football player — growing up in Toledo, then playing high school ball in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. Add two colleges to the résumé in a winding journey that has taken him from being the No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in the class of 2015 to a looming question mark in 2019.
Is he good enough to lead Michigan to a Big Ten East title?
The Wisconsin game may provide the answer. If it doesn’t go well, it may be time for backup Dylan McCaffrey to get his shot.
Maybe to satisfy (for now) a portion of the Wolverines fan base, yeah, it’s a must-win game. But really, a loss doesn’t end the season. It may be a Big Ten game, but the Badgers still play in the West division, which means losing to them won’t submarine U-M’s chances in the East.
Will it submarine your confidence in them? A little. Yet this is a road game against a ranked team that is favored to beat the Wolverines.
So, no, this isn’t a final exam on the state of the program. U-M will have more chances this season to show where it’s at.
Ohio State, anyone?
A win over the No. 14 Badgers, though, could propel the No. 10 Wolverines to the kind of season they think they can have, and give Harbaugh a signature win on the road. It helps that he’s had an extra week to prepare, which means he’s had extra time to keep tweaking his revamped offense.
Michigan wins if it takes care of the football (one turnover or less) and completes five plays of 25+ yards or more. Penalties on the road are going to happen, especially trying to operate a new offense on the road. But they must be limited. The Wolverines’ turnover issues in the first two games have been well-documented, and they must keep those to a minimum. Anything more than one and Michigan’s chances of winning plummet.
On the flip side, Michigan will lose the football game if it’s offense is penalized another five or six times and turns the football over three times or more. The offense cannot give up more points off turnovers and expect to beat a Big Ten opponent on the road. A repeat of the Army game would not only end up in defeat, but it would be ugly.
Force them to pass: The Wolverines have never really shut down Taylor; even in their convincing win last season, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry. The key for U-M in that game: Stopping Wisconsin’s passing game. On the first drive of the game, the Badgers were stopped at their 46 after a 3-yard completion on third-and-five. The second drive ended similarly: They advanced past midfield, only to punt after an incomplete pass on first down and a sack on third-and-long. Their third and fifth drives, both ending with punts, saw the Badgers unsuccessfully pass the ball in short-yardage situations and second- and third-and-longs. And, of course, Michigan came down with two interceptions. The easiest way to slow down Wisconsin: Force the offense to take the ball out of Taylor’s hands.
Patterson in run game: Michigan broke out its arc zone read package with resounding success against the Badgers last fall, integrating Patterson into the run game. Michigan’s first scoring drive began with an 81-yard run from Patterson — a huge gain that set the tone for the rest of the night. The Wolverines still have that play in their offense, successfully utilizing it against Middle Tennessee State, but Army shut it down. The Badgers will be ready for it, too. If Wisconsin sells out to stop the play, Michigan will have to be ready to counter — or it may find it more difficult to run the ball than it did last fall.
The Wolverines defense has been terrific under coordinator Don Brown, who joined the staff following the 2015 season. Michigan hasn’t found a way to shut down UW tailback Jonathan Taylor (above) — 233 yards on 36 carries in two games — but it has made the Badgers one-dimensional in three games under Brown’s direction.
UW has completed only 39.1 percent of its passes — 25 of 64 — for 331 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions in those games.
This will be the first big test for the entire UW offense, but especially for the offensive line. Michigan had to replace a handful of stars from its 2018 unit, but seniors Khaleke Hudson, Devin Gill, Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus are athletic playmakers who can put the Badgers in some uncomfortable positions.
… UW has converted 65.4 percent of its third downs (17 of 26), which leads the nation. But the Badgers have had issues in that category during its previous three games against Michigan, going a combined 11 of 41 (26.8 percent).
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