MADISON – With three games under his belt, true freshman punter Anthony Lotti is starting to settle into a groove. He’ll need to be in one this weekend.
No.8 Wisconsin will face its stiffest special teams challenge to date in No.4 Michigan and one of college football’s most dynamic players in Jabrill Peppers. Facing one of the country’s most explosive units in front of 100,000+ people could be daunting for a rookie kicker … or not.
“I don’t know about other punters, but I’m always down for a challenge,” Lotti said. “If I do my job, it should be no problem.”
Lotti didn’t deny that Peppers will be the best return man that Wisconsin has seen to this point when the two teams square off at Michigan Stadium Saturday (2:30 p.m., ABC)
Third nationally and tops in the Big Ten with an 22.7-yard average per punt return (10 returns), Peppers was named the conference’s special teams player of the week (as well as the co-defensive player of the week) when he returned four punts for 99 yards, including a 54-yarder for a touchdown, against Colorado.
It’s a big reason why Michigan ranks third in the country with a 23.64 yards per punt return.
“I definitely have a lot of respect for the guy,” Lotti said, “but we can definitely neutralize him just by hanging the ball up there as much as possible.”
Whether that happens or not rests on his leg. Assuming the starting punting job in week two, Lotti has been successful pinning opponents deep in their own territory, dropping four of his nine punts inside the 20.
It’s the deep punts that have been inconsistent. Developing a habit of hitting line drive punts, Lotti has yet to kick one over 50 yards and not delivered high enough hang time for the coverage team to get down to cover kicks.
“Line drive is the worst thing that can happen to us,” Lotti said. “Usually what we try to do is pin them outside the hashes. Out of bounds would be great, too, with no return. I’m really not proud of my deeper ones. The goal is always to match your hang time with your distance. When you’re hitting a longer ball, it’s a lot harder to do.”
Having kicked 15 punts over 50 yards his senior year of high school in Georgia, Lotti said his miscalculation stems from the weather. Coming from a warmer climate to a cooler one, Lotti lowered his drop to make contact quicker. Realizing that’s not necessary, he’s spent the last few days working on punting through the ball, which would in theory deliver more hang time. This week’s challenge demands it.
“I realized that hitting my normal punt I’ll be fine,” Lotti said, “just holding on to the ball longer and not lowering my drop.”
“A bunch of Borlands”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s experience with former Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland was brief but apparently memorable. Coaching the San Francisco 49ers at the time, Harbaugh was present when the franchise drafted Borland in the third round of the 2014 N.F.L. draft. An All-American at Wisconsin and one of the program’s greatest defensive players, Borland started in eight of the 14 games he played and finished with 104 tackles and two interceptions his rookie year. He retired in 2015 citing concerns over head trauma.
Now in his second season at Michigan, Harbaugh sees a lot of Borland’s traits in Wisconsin’s defense.
“It looks like 11 Chris Borlands out there the way they play,” Harbaugh said. “Effort at the highest level and real football. Great skill players, skill players in the back end, in the secondary, at the linebacker position and a defensive line that can rush the passer … They’ve got all the components you see in a great defense.”
Wisconsin’s defense hasn’t missed a beat since the departure of Dave Aranda to LSU. With Justin Wilcox taking the helm of a defense the returned roughly nine players who played considerable reps a season ago, the Badgers have picked up where they left off a year ago as the nation’s No.1 scoring defense (13.7 ppg).
UW enters the week No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 7 nationally in scoring defense (11.8 points per game); No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 10 nationally in rushing defense (80.5 yards per game) and No. 2 in the Big Ten and No. 12 nationally in total defense (277.0 ypg).
“The system really didn’t change, so a lot of us have been in the system a couple years,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “It’s just new faces, too. A couple guys left last year, we’ve got a couple new faces in here but we’re still getting after the ball, and we’ve got guys in the back end who can cover.”
Per usual, the strength of Wisconsin’s defense has been stifling the run. Holding eight of their last 11 opponents below 100 team rushing yards (UW is 8-0 in those games), the Badgers have held opponents to an average of 81.2 yards per game and 2.9 yards per attempt over that 11-game stretch.
That production has helped Wisconsin force 18 three-and-outs on 46 full possessions this season, including allowing only three touchdowns (only one being longer than 50 yards).
Michigan has rushed for 15 touchdowns and is averaging 229.8 yards per game, but the Wolverines’ numbers are skewed by the fact that Hawaii is 124th nationally against the run (Michigan had 306 yards and four TDs) and Penn State is 104th (UM had 326 yds and six TDs)
“(The Badgers) have a very fine coordinator in Justin Wilcox, who I have known for a very long time,” Harbaugh said. “It’s similar to what they were doing last year, and they do it very well. Like some of the great defenses that you see anywhere, they know what they’re doing, they execute it, they know the adjustments, they know the subtleties and do it with a lot of effort and hustle.”
“We’re treating it as a big game,” he added. “We’re treating it as championship-type game. I feel like that’s what we need to do with every team on our schedule.”
After a six-year hiatus in the series, Wisconsin and Michigan are scheduled to play every year for the next four years, including Wisconsin’s 2017 senior day Nov.18. While a rivalry could brew on the field, there certainly will be no animosity between the head coaches.
Harbaugh and UW head coach Paul Chryst have a long history and friendship with one another. Chryst was on the San Diego Chargers coaching staff in 1999 and 2000 when Harbaugh was the team’s quarterback. Harbaugh has ties to the Chryst family since the late 1980s, when he met Paul’s brother, Geep. The two coached together in San Francisco and Harbaugh called former UW-Platteville coach George Chryst, Paul’s dad, “one of the most highly respected, great people this game or this world has ever known.”
“It’s been a family friendship – the Chrysts and the Harbaughs – all the way back to 1987,” Harbaugh said. “Our dads were friends, the sons were friends. It’s been a 30-year friendship … If somebody can’t get along with Paul Chryst there’s something wrong with them. Such a great guy to get along with. A great guy’s guy.”