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 (5-5) at Wisconsin (7-2)
(W) Western Michigan 31-7
(W) Notre Dame 38-34
(W) Eastern Michigan 45-17
(W) Indiana 36-33
(L) at Michigan State 26-20 OT
(L) at Iowa 30-28
(W) Delaware State 63-6
(L) Penn State 35-10
(L) at Illinois 38-13
(L) Purdue 38-36
Wisconsin Players to Watch:
Building a Program from the Bottom
Athletic Director Barry Alvarez left Notre Dame during its last known peak in 1990 to become the Head Coach at Wisconsin. In his first year, the Badgers won just a single game and finished winless in Big 10 play. Over the next decade the team made three Rose Bowl appearances defining themselves as having a premier power running game with a big offensive line and multiple backs to carry the load.
Michigan fans were probably the least impressed with Wisconsin's run. Of the three Big 10 Titles, they won in the 90's, only one was won outright (1999), Michigan had beaten them twice (1998 & 1999) or avoided having to play Ohio State (1998).
In the 90's the forward pass was a foreign concept. This past decade under offensive coordinators Brian White and later Paul Chryst, Wisconsin would try to diversify to include some passing. While they were able to produce some NFL talent like Lee Evans and Brandon Williams, Wisconsin may be more known for producing quality tight ends like Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, and now Garrett Graham (Sr. #89). Tight Ends have led the team in passing since 2006, though Nick Toon (So. #1) is on pace to break that three year pattern.
Alvarez would retire from coaching after the 2005 season. As Athletic Director, he picked Bret Bielema to be his successor. It's been up and down for Bielema whose teams has played above expectations this year and in his first year in 2006, while disappointing many last season with a subpar performance. Wisconsin ranked as high as #8 in the AP before finishing the season at 7-6 after being overwhelmed by Florida State in the Champ Sports Bowl 42-13.
The demise of last year's Wisconsin team started in Ann Arbor. As a heavy favorite, the Badgers were looking to win in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1994. Leading by 19 at halftime, Wisconsin was talking a lot of smack as both teams headed to the tunnel. When they returned, Michigan would score 27 unanswered points in what would be the biggest come from behind victory in the history of Michigan Stadium to win 27-25.
Wisconsin nearly pulled off their own miracle by nearly erasing their deficit twice in the final two minutes. On 2nd and goal, Michigan's Brandon Graham (Sr. #55) forced a fumble with 1:42 left. Wisconsin would later score a TD with 13 seconds remaining and tied it with a two-point conversion only to have it called back by penalty. With the second attempt unsuccessful, Michigan won their 500th game at Michigan Stadium. Wisconsin would go on to drop out of the Top 10 losing four in a row and five out of their last six.
Wisconsin has been circling this date, Senior Day, as the day to make amends. Even Bielema is forced to acknowledge what that game meant to his team last season.
"But yeah, to be in the situation we were at half and to finish that game out the way it did, leaves a very bad taste, and then we all know what happened after that. We've battled our tails off to get to where we are right now (7-2), and Michigan is the next opportunity."
Graham had three sacks and two forced fumbles. It's obvious the first thing the Wisconsin coaching staff is looking to do is how to stop Graham from making that kind of impact again.
"On offense, Nick Toon probably played his most complete game since becoming a Badger," said Bielema.
IU did move the ball on Wisconsin, especially in the 2nd half. Hoosier quarterback Ben Chappell was 25-35 for 323 yards and three touchdowns. Wisconsin was susceptible to big passing plays. Chappell had seven passes go for 19 yards or more including a 46 yard touchdown pass to Tandon Doss. If Chappell was a little more efficient in Wisconsin territory (had two passes picked in the red zone), this game could have gone differently.
Match-ups Con and Pro
Wisconsin comes into the game leading the Big 10 rushing *(208.8 ypg.) while being the best in the Big 10 at stopping the run *(72 ypg) (note* as the season winds down Conference Stats are more significant than Overall Stats).
The defensive staff at Michigan has an interesting decision to make at linebacker. With the 248 lb Clay running downhill, do you continue to start walk-on Kevin Leach (So. #52) or go back to Obi Ezeh (Jr. #45)?
"He's the biggest, for sure. He's one of the best," Rodriguez said when asked if Clay is the best back in the Big 10.
Being the "biggest" is the dilemma for the Wolverines. Leach replaced Ezeh in the line-up two weeks ago at Illinois, but Leach is a walk-on listed at 202 lbs. where Ezeh is listed at 240 lbs. though Rodriguez mentioned he's down to 230 lbs.
"I don't think our scheme has been finalized yet and I would anticipate both of those guys playing quite a bit."
Rodriguez mentioned earlier this week that bringing down Clay will be a challenge.
"You've got to tackle him (Clay). He's not going to fall down. You'd better get a lot of people around him. It's hard for one guy, as big as he is, strong, fast … We're a small team anyway, defensively particularly. So that's a lot of concerns for us."
What Wisconsin does on offense as a whole, is what Michigan has had trouble defending during Conference play. The Badgers will play the power running game on an undersized Michigan defense until the Wolverines can stop it. Then to mix it up, the Badgers will go to their favorite targets, the tight ends. The Badgers will likely have success there with Graham and Lance Kendricks (Jr. #84). Together, they are on the receiving end of six of the ten passing touchdowns and 523 receiving yards. Once Michigan is fully committed to their bruising running game and focusing on reducing their missed assignments on coverage, Wisconsin will go to their third option by going deep to their receivers on play-action passes where they will likely be in single coverage, either in man or sadly zone.
Offensively for Michigan, as exciting as it was to hear how healthy Brandon Minor (Sr. #4) and the rest of the Michigan offense was getting for Purdue last week, things have significantly turned in the opposite direction. Not only did Minor re-aggravate his ankle injury, but now Minor is suffering from a bruised shoulder. Though Carlos Brown (Sr. #23) should be back at full strength, Minor appears to be the player that keeps the offense revving. Receivers Martavious Odoms (So. #9) (knee) and Junior Hemmingway (So. #21) (back) is still day-to-day according to Rodriguez.
Michigan's biggest advantage may be their intermediate to long passing game. Unfortunately, it's not something the Wolverines have tried a lot this season. However, Tate Forcier (Fr. #5) said this week his shoulder is no longer bothering him, and that's been evident with some increased verticality in his throws during the last couple of weeks. Like the Wolverines, Wisconsin has been playing off the ball quite a bit. Niles Brinkley (Jr. #29) is making his 3rd start at cornerback this week and appears to be the guy the Wolverines can attack. If the Badgers play more press coverage this week, it's because they don't think Tate will be able to threaten them with downfield passing. The secondary is the least consistent part of this Wisconsin defense.
One of the most enlightening statements made this week came from Forcier when he stated the game has started to slow down for him the last couple of weeks. That is usually a sign that a quarterback is no longer stressing out over the speed of the play and the players, and that he appears poised to make progress.
Though much like Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, who made things difficult for Forcier last week, Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield is just as good as Kerrigan. Schofield is in the top three in sacks and tackles-for-loss. The Chuck Bednarik defensive player of the year candidate has made timely plays, including forcing a fumble late in the Minnesota game, as the Gophers were a few yards away from a touchdown and winning the game.
With the Wolverines still one win away from bowl eligibility, the Wolverines are desperate. Unable to get a victory against Illinois or Purdue in successive weeks, the task gets much harder trying to win in Madison or against Ohio State. Desperate teams that are overmatched are known to do some surprising things. Like Purdue's on-side kick last week or their hook-and lateral in '08, will it be the Wolverines turn to do some trick plays of their own to inspire confidence? Don't be surprised if the Wolverines do a few things to shake up the team and more importantly shake up the Badgers, who think they have the Wolverines figured out.
Nobody has more potential to shake things up than Denard Robinson (Fr. #16), who hasn't seen the field much since the Delaware State game. His burst of speed during certain points in the game may be enough to generate big plays against a more traditional Big 10 defense like Wisconsin's.
"It was this past week. I told Denard, I wish I would have gotten you in the game more," Rodriguez lamented after the Purdue game. "He had a really good week of practice. We had some plans to get him in there."
Wisconsin won't be going to the Rose Bowl this year. The two teams ahead of them in the standings, Ohio State and Iowa, both beat the Badgers this year, making it nearly impossible for them to win any tie-breaker. A shared conference title is almost as unlikely as there are only two conference games remaining, but Wisconsin will remain very motivated to beat the Wolverines on Senior Day.
ENJOY THE GAME!