Lewis: Playing Michigan raises the stakes

When you sit across the table from the Michigan Wolverines, you had better hope that you do not have many tells. The Wisconsin football hopes that they can catch all the right cards. BN welcomes back Matt Lewis with this commentary. Read on.

People from Michigan never fail to remind you over and over again how much their state resembles a hand. They hold it out to one another – pointing at the statewide spots they have come from and the places to which they are going.

All of that makes their first two weeks in secrecy that much more admirable. In the shadow of the top-ranked Buckeyes upon this year's Big Ten landscape, the Wolverines played it relatively safe in solid but expected victories over Vanderbilt and Eastern Michigan – something head coach Lloyd Carr had found himself on the hot seat for of in 2005.

But then the aptly named Carr drove his troops out of auto country and into big, bad South Bend. And that was where – with the entire country watching – Michigan loosened up its poker face.

It turns out that this year it's holding quite the hand.

When the Badgers take the field in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Wisconsin fans might finally get a similar sense of where their team actually stands in the scheme of things this season. Three similarly expected victories, while far from dazzling, at least have the squad in position to go undefeated in September for the third year in a row. By contrast, the Wolverines have not opened 4-0 since 1999.

To get there, Head Coach Bret Bielema will have to stare down the type of challenge that only an uphill sprinter could relish – a scorned opponent seemingly running on all cylinders, out to prove to the country that last year will never, ever happen again. Oh, and of course there's that whole thing with the 100,000-plus capacity crowd. There's that too.

"This is why we play," said sophomore cornerback Allen Langford, a Detroit native and a childhood Wolverine diehard. (Just ask him about his Charles Woodson memories and wait for his face to light up.) "We came here to play Big Ten football. We came here to play big teams. And we came here to beat the big teams."

It conceivably does not get any bigger for the Badgers this season. A road victory in a historic stadium against the sixth-ranked team in the nation – one which is imposing its will on both sides of the ball – would likely be the Badgers' most impressive win since riding the arm of a backup quarterback to topple the defending national champion Ohio State in 2003.

But then Langford tries to downplay it as just another week, and just another team to defend. He does his best, but you find it hard to believe he isn't following a script. "I wouldn't say that [this shows us where are]," he said. "It's just another game for the defense to go out there and get better – to go out there and make plays, gel as a unit and keep getting better."

The truth is that if Langford is downplaying any potential hype to a rematch of last year's come-from-behind Badger victory, it is probably in part due to the fact that no one really knows where the team's ceiling might be located this season – something the Wolverines, on the other hand, gave the country plenty to worry about in their dissection of the Fightless Irish.

"We haven't been tested enough to say exactly where we are," said secondary coach Kerry Cooks, speaking about his talented cornerbacks – Langford and fellow sophomore Jack Ikegwuono. The sentiment extends throughout the entire locker room. "I really want to be tested, and these guys want to be tested, because we want to know exactly where we are.

"Until we get that, it's kind of, we're in limbo about our identity or what kind of secondary we can be."

It was star-in-the-making, Mario Manningham, who put the hand back on the map for Michigan last weekend – despite a banged up paw of his own. The sophomore wide receiver caught three Chad Henne touchdown passes en route to victory, earning him top billing in Sports Illustrated this week, as well as the respect of secondaries throughout the Big Ten.

"He really took advantage of their weaknesses," Ikegwuono said of Manningham's performance. On tape, Manningham would appear to be the best receiver Ikegwuono will have gone up against in his young career, something he confirmed this week. The Madison native turned Badger has been praised for his potential as well, and thinks this could be the type of opportunity to show people what he is truly capable of. (Those people would include himself, among others.)

"I think Mario really put himself on the map last week," Ikegwuono said. "And I think that this week I can do the same."

"I think that to be a shutdown cornerback, you've got to go against the best and shutdown the best," he later added. "At this point of the season, I don't want to say that we haven't played against top-ranked competition, but as I said last week, ‘we have bigger fish to fry.' I think that this week I'm really going to see where I'm at in terms of my technique."

He is far from the only one. If it is a test that Cooks and Ike and everyone else are looking for, the Wolverines are going to bring it. A ferocious front seven, surrendering an eye-popping 20.7 rushing yards per game, is going to be unlike anything the Badger offense has seen thus far, which will force the passing game to rise to heights it has not yet achieved if it is to open up the kinds of holes P.J. Hill has been able to hit in opening weeks.

And for all of the nationwide focus on Henne and Manningham this past week, it is the junior tailback Mike Hart (128.7 yards per game) who could ultimately be the one to burn the Wisconsin defense – or at least grind them down in the process.

Throughout all of this, the hostile environment will afford the Badgers few chances for error, and few opportunities for victory if the big-play offense Michigan put on display last week makes a repeat appearance.

"That's it!" Langford exclaimed like a coach whose usually quiet player finally raised his hand and answered the question on the blackboard. "That's really the big thing is to not give up the big plays. Michigan won last week off those. They went with the big play.

"If you can limit the big plays, you give yourself a better chance of winning, and that's what we're going to try to go in there and do. They're going to get their plays here and there, but we've got to make sure not to give up that big one."

That will be a tall task for a young pair of corners and a corps of skill players still learning to grow with the veteran John Stocco managing the offense. They will have to pick and choose their battles, and do it all with extreme precision, if they are to have a chance.

"I told Jack, I told Lang, that this is the best group of wide receivers that we'll see," Cooks said. It could be argued that any number of units could have been substituted for the word: receivers. "We haven't really been tested…Let's find out what we're about. Let's find out what we can be."

Time to see what the Badgers are holding.

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