MADISON – In the first four weeks of the college football season, No.8 Wisconsin has used a tremendous defensive effort to knock off two top-8 teams in the country. They’ll need to do it again this week and then some.
The test for them this week appears to be the most daunting and challenging of the season when they head back to the state of Michigan this weekend, taking on the fourth-ranked Wolverines at Michigan Stadium Saturday.
“It’s going to be a fun experience for me,” outside linebacker Vince Biegel said, who was recruited by former Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) has shown few chinks in the armor through four games. In home games against Hawaii, USF, Colorado and Penn State, the Wolverines’ offense – led by junior quarterback Wilton Speight - have scored an average of 52 points per game, averaging 467.8 yards per game and 6.3 yards per play.
The Badgers (4-0, 1-0) enter seventh in scoring defense (11.8 points allowed per game), 10th in rush defense (80.5 yards per outing) and 12th in total defense (277 yards per contest). UW has also forced nine turnovers through the first four games, the most for the program over that stretch of time since 2003.
In last week’s 49-10 trouncing of Penn State, the Wolverines ran for 326 yards and six touchdowns and improved its touchdown-interception ratio to 9-to-1. The offense has also committed only one fumble; that didn’t come from the hands of Da’Veon Smith, who is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and a team-high 259 yards rushing.
“As much as Da’Veon does get yards after the carry, fights for that extra three-four inches and break tackles, he’s really doing a great job of not putting the ball on the ground and fumbling,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That’s hard to do. Most guys they teach to get down rather than get six more inches because it could cause a fumble. He’s strong.”
The Wolverines are more than an offensive juggernaut. The defense has tallied 45 tackles-for-loss and 17 sacks so far this season, have allowed just five red-zone opportunities, are 11th in the country
in total defense (269.8 yards per game) and 12th nationally in pass defense (147.3 ypg).
“It’s a really good scheme,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think they’ve done a nice job, similar to ours, with the transition. It looks to me their players understand what they’re doing and have confidence in it. I think they have a really good group of players across the board. A good scheme with good players, that’s a good recipe. For us that’s a challenge.”
The biggest challenge will be on third down. Wisconsin went 7 of 16 in its win over Michigan State, with redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook going 9 of 12 for 136 yards, including 6 of 6 for 100 yards on third-and-10 or longer. Michigan leads the nation in third-down defense, allowing the opposition to convert just 12 percent of its third-down chances (6-of-50).
To be fair, when receiver Jazz Peavy heard that number, he didn’t bat an eyelash.
“I think about what we can do, I think about what I know we can do and I know we can convert third downs,” Peavy said. “I know we can make plays anywhere on the field. That 12 percent was 12 percent against other teams.”
No matter what unit is on the field, Wisconsin will have to be aware of junior Jabrill Peppers, who Chryst called the “best player in college football right now.” Not only is he the team’s second-leading tackler with 33 stops, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble this season, Peppers has returned 10 punts for 227 yards and one touchdown this season.
In the victory over Colorado, Peppers gained 204 all-purpose yards; had four punt returns for 99 yards and two kickoff returns for 81 yards; added two carries for 24 yards. He was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week and co-Defensive Player of the Week for that performance, becoming the first player to earn both awards in the same week since the conference added the special teams honor in 1994.
“He’s a special football player,” Chryst said. “There’s two things when I think of him. One, there aren’t a lot of players who can impact the game in all three phases like he does. Then when you watch him some more, he does a lot of the little things that are reserved for when you specialize (a position). That’s what’s impressive. His knowledge and awareness of the game clearly as an athlete is special.”
The Badgers have won four of the past six meetings in the series, which has been on hiatus since 2010 due to conference realignments in 2011 and 2014. The two schools haven’t played in so long that each program has changed head coaches twice.
It appears to be worth the wait, as both teams will be facing each other ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1947.
“We’ve got to be at our best,” Harbaugh said. “Wisconsin is going to be darn tough to beat. If we play at our best we’ll be darn tough to beat … Respect the heck out of the way Wisconsin is playing football on both sides of the ball and special teams.”null