Following a dominate 30-6 performance at No.8 Michigan State, No.8 Wisconsin’s schedule gets twice as hard – ranking wise – with a date at the Big House with No.4 Michigan. The Wolverines are 4-0 this season and won its conference opener after easily beating Penn State, 49-10, last weekend.
With Michigan having been one of the most talented rosters in the country and led by one of college football's more polarizing coaches in Jim Harbaugh, Saturday’s game is shaping up to be one of the best Wisconsin’s see all season. Here’s a closer look at Michigan.
Michigan has been consistently praised for its excellent defensive play, but that’s not to say the offense is sub par in any way. The Wolverines returned several starters and key contributors on offense from last year’s 10-win team, but the one glaring question Michigan had was its quarterback play. That no longer appears to be the case.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight surprised some when he beat out senior John O’Korn in a fall camp quarterback competition. After attempting only 25 passes last season, Speight (6-6, 243 pounds) has looked good against weak competition, throwing for 875 yards on 72 of 114 passing with nine touchdowns and one interception (which came on his first attempt of the season). Speight holds a 151.9 quarterback efficiency ranking, which puts him at 37th in the country.
Speight has a surplus of viable receiving options, including two veteran starters in Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. Talented slot receiver Grant Perry and All-American Jake Butt, who is considered to be one of the best tight end in the nation, are other key players in Michigan’s passing game. Darboh leads the team in both receiving yards (248) and touchdowns (four), while Butt leads the team in catches (19) and comes in second for both yards and touchdowns. Also worth mentioning are tight ends Ian Bunting and Devin Asiasi, along with freshman receivers Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom.
Michigan has an extremely dynamic group of players involved in the running game headed by senior tailback De’Veon Smith. Fellow senior Ty Issac, along with Karan Higdon and breakout freshman Chris Evans, have all had solid starts to their 2016 season. The group has combined for 10 rushing touchdowns, but tight-end-turned-fullback Khalid Hill has a team-high four touchdowns in power-run situations. Smith leads the team in both yards and carries and has shown the potential to break off several big runs in a game.
After coordinator Boston College's defense, helping the 3-9 Eagles lead the country in eight different defensive categories last season, Don Brown has replaced current Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin and turned the Wolverines' talented roster into one of the best defenses in the country thus far. The Wolverines enter the game No. 13 nationally in points allowed (13.8 per game), 12th in pass defense (147.3 yards per game) and are top 10 in a multitude of other categories.
Along the defensive line are several playmakers, including last year’s top-ranked Scout.com recruit Rashan Gary. In a reserve role, Gary has 15 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. Starting defensive end Chris Wormley (three sacks) is a great player on the edge and a leader for the whole team, serving as co-captain. Chase Winovich has come on strongly since joining the starting line after defensive end Taco Charlton, who is now back and healthy, went down with an injury. Winovich has recorded 19 total tackles and two sacks.
Starting linebacker Ben Gedeon leads the team in total tackles (38), including a team-high 11 last week against Penn State, and is second in tackles for loss with six. Do-it-all athlete Jabrill Peppers, who primarily plays as a linebacker, is the anchor of the defensive group. Peppers has had a fantastic start to the year and is a threat on offense, defense and special teams. Peppers’ unique versatility led to Badgers head coach Paul Chryst calling him the best player in college football. This season Peppers has 33 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 227 punt return yards, the latter includes a touchdown.
Michigan’s secondary took a hit last week when fifth-year senior Jeremy Clark suffered a torn ACL. Fortunately for the Wolverines, All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis (who led all FBS defensive backs with 15 pass breakups last year) returned last week and is at full strength. With Lewis back, Michigan fields two of the best starting corners in the conference with the aforementioned Lewis and Channing Stribling. Freshman corner David Long may be a name to watch, as the talented freshman has seen the field early this season and could see an increased role.
The lone weak spot may be the safeties. Michigan fans have been groaning constantly about Dymonte Thomas’ ability to cover. Both Thomas and senior Delano Hill have been picked on this season and have shown that they can get beat on any given play. Even so, Hill and Stribling recorded the two interceptions the secondary has made in 2016.
The matchup to watch is Wisconsin’s third-down offense against Michigan, as the Wolverines have allowed opponents to convert only six third downs on 50 attempts (best in the country).
This will be Michigan’s first ranked opponent of the season, meaning Wisconsin will prove to be a much tougher opponent for the Wolverines than the previous four weeks. It’s no doubt that Michigan has the bigger names and the better talent on paper, but that has never seemed to matter for Wisconsin.
Expect this to be a true Big Ten style game with establishing a power running game being a main focus for both squads. This should be a matchup where Wisconsin flies under the radar once more and makes it a close game, though it must be noted that the Wolverines do have the talent to blow a game like this wide open. To be fair, Wisconsin dominated a top-10 team last weekend, so this game could truly go either way.null