Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Michigan (7-3) vs. #5 Wisconsin (9-1)
(W) UCONN 30-10
(W) at Notre Dame 28-24
(W) UMASS 42-37
(W) Bowling Green 65-21
(W) at Indiana 42-35
(L) Michigan State 37-17
(L) Iowa 38-28
(L) at Penn State 41-31
(W) Illinois 67-65 3OT
(W) at Purdue 27-16
(W) at UNLV 41-21
(W) San Jose St 27-17
(W) Arizona St. 20-19
(W) Austin Peay 70-3
(L) at Michigan State 34-24
(W) Minnesota 41-23
(W) Ohio State 31-18
(W) at Iowa 31-30
(W) at Purdue 34-13
(W) Indiana 83-20
Wisconsin Players to Watch:
Wisconsin comes back to Ann Arbor still feeling the crushing blow of losing a 19-0 halftime lead and ultimately losing the game 27-25 in what was Michigan's largest come from behind victory at home. At the time, the Badgers were ranked ninth and it took weeks for them to regain their winning ways. For the Wolverines, it was the highlight of their 3-9 season. For Bret Bielema, it was his worst loss as the Badgers Head Coach.
While Wisconsin got revenge last year winning 45-24 in Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers are looking for redemption in Ann Arbor.
"We all know what happened the last time we went to Michigan," said Bielema immediately following last Saturday's game. "We let something happen up there that was embarrassing to me, embarrassing to our program, and put us on a little bit of a tailspin there for awhile. So for us to go up there -- I think it's going to be a nice experience to be able to just focus on Michigan."
Wisconsin Bombs IU
Last week, Wisconsin embarrassed Indiana, putting up the most points in 60 years of Big Ten conference play when they pasted 83 on the Hoosiers. It's left many to debate whether Bielema is guilty of running up the score.
In his defense, have you seen Indiana's? They've given up an average of nearly 41 points per game in conference play. The Wolverines scored five touchdowns against the Hoosiers in drives that took less than two minutes. Bielema substituted his offensive starters in the 4th quarter, used multiple quarterbacks, and ran most of the time, passing only four times in the fourth quarter. One of the late scores was an interception return; and with IU's quarterback Ben Chappell out with an injury in the 2nd half, the Hoosier offense couldn't get first downs to take time off the clock either.
"I don't think Wisconsin will ever be accused or trying to be sexy or of style points," Bielema said. "There was no malice intended."
The big case against Bielema was when 2nd string QB Jon Budmayr (Fr. #5) threw a 74-yard bomb to Jared Abbrederis (Fr. #4). Bielema explained it was a broken play, and won't fault Budmayr for going long.
"My back-up quarterback has thrown six passes and he could be the starting quarterback in one play this weekend, so I would do it again a hundred times over"
Bielema's arguments this week has been much more convincing then when he tried justifying going for two with a 25 point lead and 6:39 left to play against rival Minnesota weeks prior.
"You know what? If we're playing and somebody is going to go for two against me because they're up 25, that's what they should do, that's what the card says," Bielema said.
Whether the lead is 25, 26, or 27, Minnesota still had to score four touchdowns, unless Bielema was worried that the Gophers would score three touchdowns, convert all three two-point conversions, get at least one on-side kick and then hit the game winning field goal.
"I saw their offense score very, very fast," he said. "That's all that was driving my mind. I went to the card and I would go with it a million times over."
Okie dokie, Smokey. If Bielema appears guilty, it's due in great part due to his previous actions and accompanying logic.
With the facts in hand, I had a brief conversation with Coach Rich Rodriguez and asked whether a coach can do more in these circumstances, and whether a coach is obligated to do anything at all.
"You got to let your players play," he told me. "A bigger insult is to tell them not to score and take a knee."
Rodriguez elaborated more during his weekly teleconference.
"The only way I think you can say somebody is truly running it up if they're keeping their starters in all the way until the end, and actually trying to do things with their starters to put up points on the board. They (Indiana) had some turnovers. They had some depth issues, their quarterback went out. All of sudden things snowballed on them. You can throw a pass at the end and not run it up because you want your second team, third team guys to run the offense. They work hard all week. They get an opportunity to play. You just don't want them just handing the ball off all the time."
The Wisconsin Offense
When you think of Wisconsin's offense, the general thought that comes to mind is multiple running backs as heavy as offensive lineman going through holes created by beasts of mythological proportion. Since coming to Wisconsin in 2005, Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst has evolved this offense much further than their Neanderthal-like predecessors.
There's no doubt they predominantly rush the football with backs over 230 lbs, but it's no longer in slow motion. They've increased their speed at running back and at receiver. While they haven't really recruited an All-American quarterback to pass the ball, unheralded Badger QB's have been able to make plays, especially to their tight ends, who frequently lead the team in receiving yards and receptions.
When you have a power offensive line, a multitude of good backs, with receivers who can move the chains when they need to, it sounds quite a bit like a Michigan offense from the 1990's. What's not to like, other than they wear red and white?
"They're so big and strong up front. Nobody really moves them off the line of scrimmage," says Rodriguez. "They work hard too. We've got to really match their work ethic and we've got to really strain to hold our blocks and match their physicalness up front."
The Badger's biggest back and last year's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, John Clay (Jr. #32), isn't 100%. He has an MCL knee sprain and didn't play against Indiana. Freshman Player of the Year candidate James White (# 20) and Sophomore Montee Ball (#28) have been pushing one another flip-flopping as the number two man in the depth chart. White is the speedster of the group. White and Ball combined for five touchdowns and 311 rushing yards. Wisconsin is the only team in the nation to have three backs with each over 500 yards rushing yards this season.
Quarterback Scott Tolzien (Sr. #16) may not be All-Big Ten this year, but the senior may settle for being the best in school history. He's extremely accurate with a career rating of 150.0. He's on track to break a couple of the school's season and career records. Against Michigan last year, Tolzien threw for four touchdowns and rushed for another, tying a school record.
When healthy, Tolzien's receiving targets are dangerous, led by tight end and Mackey Award semi-finalist Lance Kendricks (Sr. #84). Kendricks is likely to become the fifth Badger tight end in seven years to go to the NFL.
This offense, which returned 10 starters from last season, is on pace to set a school record. If the Badgers continue their scoring pace in conference play, they'll be the first team to average 40 pts per game since Northwestern in 2000. Extremely efficient in the red zone, they lead the country by scoring touchdowns 81.1% of the time and are 25-28 in conference play. So, if Wisconsin gets inside the Michigan 20, a touchdown is virtually guaranteed.
Hopefully that jinxed it.
Michigan's defense had its best game last weekend at Purdue minus their two best players, DT Mike Martin (Jr. #68) and LB Jonas Mouton (Sr. #8). Both are probable to play Saturday. The Wolverines defense has continued to experiment with player and position movement that started horribly against Penn State but has shown steady improvement since. They're showing confidence -- and look what confidence had done for Penn State for ten quarters and what a lack of confidence has done for Illinois in its last game against Minnesota.
However, Michigan's defensive problems are nowhere near over. Wisconsin's offense may be their biggest test. The Badgers scored 45 and punted only once against the Wolverines last year. The Purdue game has given everyone a false sense of security. Besides the weather being a factor, Purdue Head Coach Danny Hope spent most of the Michigan week preparing a receiver, Justin Siller, to play quarterback and their quarterback, Rob Henry to rep at running back. The result was Siller reinjuring himself on the first play and members of the backfield running into one another more than once.
The Wisconsin Defense
The defense isn't on par with the offense, but they have made their mark at times. Badger cornerbacks have recorded back-to-back interceptions returned for touchdowns in their last two games. Antonio Fenelus (Jr. #26) had a 36 yard pick and return for a score against Purdue, and last week Aaron Henry's (Jr. #7) 37 yarder in the fourth quarter, added to the lopsided victory last week against Indiana.
Michigan must also face another defensive end that has a legitimate shot to win the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award, J.J. Watt (Jr. #99). Watt has mentioned that he's trying to emulate Kerrigan's game, and the two talk to one another during the season. Rodriguez referred to Ryan Kerrigan as an All Big Ten player this week, and though Kerrigan's performance against Michigan was epic (10 tackles, five TFL's, four sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery), Rodriguez had higher praise for Watt.
"He's an All-American in my opinion, the way he's played, his consistency, every ballgame. You know, I think he's a first-team All-American."
Watt also blocks kicks. The Chuck Bednarik semi-finalist has done it three times in his career, most notably against Iowa in the Badgers 31-30 win.
Turnovers could once again be telling storyline this week. The Wolverines have coughed it up ten times in the last two games while the Badgers have forced seven turnovers in the same span. For the season, the Badgers haven't returned it in kind, committing an NCAA low of seven turnovers. Giving up the ball has been a point of emphasis for the Wolverines. It becomes a problem when that point continues to be an emphasis each week in Big Ten play. The Wisconsin defense is smelling blood in the water this week.
Denard Robinson (So. #16) isn't playing as sharp as he was earlier in the season, but he hasn't regressed into his freshman form either. Robinson still has good touch in his passes, surprises people with where he's running to or where's he throwing, and he made two big first downs in Michigan's last drive against Purdue, when moving the chains was difficult for both teams. Robinson's problem is that he isn't playing near-perfect anymore and his mistakes can become quite glaring.
Robinson will see many of the same looks this week from Wisconsin.
Once again, running back help for Robinson is in flux. The health of Michael Shaw (Jr. #20) is in question since he is listed as 50-50 of playing with a potential head injury. Vincent Smith (So. #2) rushed for 99 yards and a score last week and had a good game against Wisconsin last year with 82 yards combined rushing and receiving. With Taylor Lewan (Fr. #77) also somewhat questionable with a head injury, it will be tough for the Wolverines to ignite the fireworks they did the last time they played at home -- but there should be plenty of scoring.
ENJOY THE GAME!