The teams: The Wisconsin Badgers (1-2, 0-1) vs the No. 14 Michigan Wolverines (4-0, 1-0)
The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: FOX with Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt in the booth, and Jenny Taft on the sideline.
The last time: Wisconsin ran for 341 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-11 beatdown last November in Ann Arbor.
The series: Michigan leads 51-17-1
The line: Wisconsin -1.5
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) What you got this time, Graham Mertz?
Wisconsin turnovers accounted for 31 of Notre Dame’s 41 points last week and Graham Mertz was responsible for all five. The quarterback was intercepted four times, including two that were taken back for touchdowns, while also losing a fumble.
It is pretty simple for the Badgers. When Mertz protects the football, they have an incredibly good chance of winning. In fact, they are 5-0 when he does not throw an interception. But if he is loose with the ball, they are in trouble, evidenced by them being 0-5 when he does throw it to the other team at least once.
Mertz does not have to be perfect against the Wolverines. The redshirt sophomore must make smart decisions and hit open receivers. Unfortunately, he has not done either against elite competition this year. Saturday provides him another opportunity against a Michigan defense that ranks fourth in the country in fewest points allowed.
2) Time to dominate
In outscoring Michigan 84-25 the last two years, Wisconsin’s run game has been unstoppable. The Badgers ran for 359 yards in 2019 and 341 yards in 2020. To this point, UW has not shown they can run like that against good defenses and Michigan has that.
For whatever reason – facing too many stacked fronts, a lack of continuity, or a lack of adjustments – Wisconsin’s offensive line did not get the job done against Penn State and Notre Dame. The Badgers averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in those two games combined. That is not going to cut it, even with acknowledging how difficult it is to run when seeing so many defenders close to the line of scrimmage.
Wisconsin needs more out of its offensive line and if the Badgers get can just a sliver of what they did against the Wolverines the last two times out, it may be enough to get the win.
3) Strength on strength
No team in the Big Ten is averaging more yards per game on the ground than Michigan at 290.8. The Wolverines have 17 rushing touchdowns, which is tied for the most in the country, and are running on 74% of their plays this year. Some of that is the nature in which their games have played out – they beat their first three opponents by a score of 141 to 34 – but it is clear Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis have made a commitment to the running game.
Still, Michigan has not seen a front seven like Wisconsin’s yet. The Badgers lead the country in rush defense at 23.0 yards per game and have allowed just one score on the ground. They have been downright dominant the last two games against Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame, allowing 19 yards on 50 carries. Sack yardage plays into that, but it needs to be noted that the quarterbacks for the Eagles and Fighting Irish each had their team’s longest rush on the day – nine yards for Ben Bryant and eight yards for Jack Coan.
If Wisconsin can keep stuffing the run like it has, Michigan will be pushed out of its comfort zone and forced to count on Cade McNamara to make some plays with his arm.
4) Speaking of Cade McNamara….
Only the three service academies are throwing less than Michigan, but Wisconsin does not think that is because they don’t trust McNamara.
“They have not had to force the ball down the field and really put the ball in the quarterback’s hands much,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “That’s the benefit of winning games and winning them big. I think they have more confidence in the quarterback than it appears. There are people coming out and acting like it’s an issue for him. I don’t think it is. They just haven’t had to win a game that way yet.
“So, we’ve got to go in there and understand that they can be a more balanced offense than they currently are. We have to force them into being that.”
Wisconsin saw McNamara last year, as he came in when the game was already a blowout. He finished 4-for-7 for 72 yards and a touchdown. That effort showed the Badgers what the quarterback is capable of and they will not be caught off guard Saturday.
5) Make or break
Wisconsin’s playoff hopes may have been dashed but its season is not over at this point. Yeah, the Badgers are 1-2 for the first time in 20 years, but there is still enough time for them to figure it out and win the Big Ten West. However, that needs to start Saturday against Michigan.
If they fall to 0-2 in conference play, it seems unlikely they will be able to catch an Iowa team that could go to 3-0 Friday night in Maryland. A win, though, puts them back on track at 1-1. They would control their own fate just by winning their own games and not needing to count on anyone else.
This game will surely make or break their hopes of making it to the conference title game for a fourth time in Chryst’s five seasons.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
— Michigan leads the all-time series 51-17-1 but Wisconsin has won five straight in Madison and 7-4 overall since 2005. The Badgers are looking for just their second three-game winning streak in the series and their first since the late 1950s and early 1960s.
— The Badgers have lost seven straight games to ranked teams and are just 3-12 in their last 15. The offense has been a big reason in the current losing streak as they have averaged just 11.6 points per game. Another loss would drop Wisconsin to 1-3 for the first time since 1990.
— Wisconsin will celebrate the career of former coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez during the game. Alvarez is the all-time wins leader for the Badgers with 119 over his 16-year career plus two interim stints for bowl games. That leads the next closest coach – Bret Bielema – by 51 wins. For perspective, current coach Paul Chryst as 57 victories, tied with Phil King for the third-most in UW history.