|WHAT||Michigan vs Wisconsin|
|WHERE||Camp Randall Stadium
|THE LINE||Wisconsin –3.5|
So about that weather:
- Accuweather: partly cloudy, low 70s, 20% chance of rain in the second half.
- Weather Underground: thunderstorms and scattered thunderstorms for duration, 60-70% chance of rain each hour.
- Weather Channel: pretty much the same as Weather Underground.
By two votes to one, Saturday is going to be an unpredictable combination of scattered rain, the occasional downpour, and everyone's favorite: lightning delays. Or maybe Camp Randall will dodge all of this. This preview is going to continue like this is going to be a normal-ish football game; if it does rain buckets prepare for the mother of all slogs. Camp Randall is an artificial surface, at least.
As for the opponent: Wisconsin has hammered its first two foes by a combined score of 110-0, which is a damn sight better than Michigan has done. It's probable that Wisconsin's first two foes are awful, though. USF went out the week after getting skunked by Wisconsin to post a 14-10 loss to Georgia Tech. GT is transitioning away from Paul Johnson's triple option and just lost to the Citadel. CMU spent its offseason drawing increasingly ludicrous shark hentai in a futile attempt to sate the… ah, nevermind.
Anyway, Wisconsin passed its tests against lower-echelon foes better than Michigan did so this line has swung a whopping 10 points from preseason expectations. Is that an overreaction based on Michigan losing more fumbles in two games than they did all of last year? Maybe. Probably. Let's hope so, anyway.
[Hit THE JUMP for The Usual]
Run Offense vs Wisconsin
Available? [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Beset by injury, Wisconsin limped into this game last year with planetoid nose tackle Olive Sagapolu flanked by 1) a guy who's starting at guard this year because he was always an OL and 2) an injury-hampered version of Isaiahh Loudermilk. ("Isaiahh" is not a typo. He can join a band with Dererk Pardon.) Let's set the shocking debut of Michigan's arc package aside and focus just on the running backs. Michigan didn't quite pave Wisconsin but Higdon, Wilson, and Evans combined for 149 yards on 30 carries, just under 5 a pop, and Michigan beat the Badger ground assault in success rate.
This year Wisconsin is again beset by injury. Sagapolu graduated. Bryson Williams, is replacement, is out of this game per the Badger injury report. That leaves true freshman Keeanu Benton as the "starting" NT, though as Seth notes Wisconsin has spent pretty much the entire season in a 2-4-5—also not a typo—with 230-pound OLB types playing standup end while their 3-4 DEs slide inside to play DT. At least those guys, Loudermilk and Garrett Rand, are hale.
This posed no problem against USF (29 yards on 16 non-QB rushes) and CMU (42 yards on 18 non-QB rushes). If that is due to Wisconsin cracking the football codes and downloading the opposition, Michigan's going to lose. If that's more about the opposition than anything, this could be anything from a meh outing reminiscent of Army (in which case Michigan loses) to a bonafide paving.
With all due respect to Jim Leonard and Wisconsin's program, doesn't this have to be more mirage than real? There's a reason defenses run more than two bonafide defensive linemen; there's a reason Wisconsin has not. It seems deeply unlikely the Badgers are going to make either a 2-4-5 or a true freshman nose tackle work out well against Michigan's OL of returning All Big Ten players.
The way they can make it work is by gaming Michigan's approach like Army did: shuffle ends that induce a give and then get to the play, linebackers on "scrape exchanges" who still get to occupy interior blockers; safeties and corners with the freedom to blitz with impunity if Michigan doesn't go after super soft corners. Free hitters can be 230 pounds and it doesn't matter. Hopefully a bye week after an early come to Jesus game will give Michigan enough time to address the issues that beset them against the Black Knights. Ed Warinner's been around the block and so has Harbaugh. If Gattis is off to a shaky start he's likely to stabilize.
For Michigan's part, they get back Jon Runyan Jr. Runyan Jr is an NFL guard playing tackle; for the purposes of this section he's a massive upgrade on Ryan Hayes and just the kind of mobile, reliable edge blocker suited to take on OLB types who could give a more ponderous guy the business. The injury status of their running backs is murkier, with rumors flying about Zach Charbonnet being unavailable for some time. These rumors getting significant push-back from within the program, but there's no consensus on whether or not Charbonnet has had surgery, which… what? How is that an unknown?
Anyway: if Charbonnet can't go Michigan will probably split snap between Christian Turner—who's been extremely impressive with the ball in his hands and also directly responsible for two sacks, and the fumbles that resulted, against Army—and Tru Wilson. Wilson has some sort of hand issue but is reportedly close to a return, and if Charbonnet's gone any version of Wilson that can pick up a blitz will be shoved on the field.
I wouldn't expect a ton of wide open QB runs after last year's game, but it's imperative that Michigan uses the threat of that productively and opens up the interior, which should be vulnerable no matter what configuration of meat the Badgers deploy.
KEY MATCHUP: INTERIOR OL versus WHATEVER WISCONSIN PUTS OUT THERE. Two 3-4 DEs, one of them a 6'7" guy under 300 pounds? Must win that decisively. Freshman NT? Must win that decisively.
Pass Offense vs Wisconsin
must win pass pro [Bryan Fuller]
Wisconsin's rush capabilities are close to unknown but are probably subpar. 13.5 of last year's 18 sacks graduated. That sack rate was already just 98th nationally. Their passing down sack rate was even worse, 122nd. Baun (2.5 sacks) and Loudermilk (1) are the only guys in the starting lineup with any track record in that department, that thin. Wisconsin picked up 4 sacks against USF, so that's promising… and then GT matched that. Ah.
Seth does like Baun…
The guy to really worry about is Zach Baun. Last year he was an quietly elite pass rusher who was often very close to a sack or TFL and rarely got that to pay off. This year, he's getting that excellent outside rush & dip combo to pay off:
AND he's worked on an inside-outside and outside-inside moves that work a quarter of the time but also tend to stretch his athleticism and end up with him on the ground. This makes his pass rush a lot more dangerous if you get in a situation where you have to throw.
…but if Michigan can't contain him, with chips if necessary, it's going to be a long slog through Epenesa, Gross-Matos, Willekes, and Young.
It's possible that Wisconsin has blitz schemes that can make up for what projects to be a significant lack of one-on-one rush wins. But again, if that happens with four of five returning starters and Warinner back that is a season-altering red flag. Tough to predict that.
So, if Wisconsin isn't getting to the quarterback much and is dropping into a lot of 7- and 8-man zones the question becomes "is Shea Patterson any better this year?" Last year Wisconsin just dropped guys and waited for Patterson to self-destruct:
I thought both of the big drive ending-sacks Michigan suffered were Patterson's fault. Herbstreit kept talking about good coverage and long routes in this game and he was about half right.
Nico Collins doesn't get a ton of separation here but does put the DB in scramble mode. Patterson is already gone by the time this happens. It goes from this:
Patterson looking at DB with outside leverage
Patterson already scrambling out as DB loses outside leverage
Collins has a half foot on most DBs; I want Patterson to take that shot. …Other events were even clearer. Gentry turns his defensive back around on the play that turned into the very bad sack Patterson took:
#83 slot to left
That guy is wide open, with yards of lateral separation from a defensive back who has to do a 360. But Patterson has already lost patience.
Patterson ate three sacks that were all his fault and had a total of 124 yards on 21 dropbacks, a performance roughly on par with Alex Hornibrook aside from Hornibrook's two interceptions. Assertion: if Patterson does not outperform Jack Coan Michigan is not going to win 38-13 again.
Wisconsin is again down starting S Scott Nelson but has reasonably experienced options filling the gaps behind; they've also flipped their corner two deep:
Speaking of annoying, the same foursome of grabby, unathletic cornerbacks remain, though last year's backups are this year's starters: boundary CB Deron Harrell, who moved last year from receiver, and field CB Faion Hicks, the little guy who kept playing 11 yards off DPJ because speed is an issue. The backups still rotate in plenty: Caesar Williams is a Brandon Watson type without the SWATSON powers.
They've been able to play in the face of the opposition so far, but Michigan's receivers should be another thing entirely. Taking advantage of that has not been a strength for Michigan thus far. That's partially on Patterson, and partially on a reluctance to force it in to Nico Collins.
KEY MATCHUP: SHEA PATTERSON vs THIS IS A NICE ROOMY POCKET. It is recommended to find a person to throw to instead of running into seven guys with their eyes on the QB.
Run Defense vs Wisconsin
it takes a village to contain Taylor [Bryan Fuller]
This felt horrible last year when Michigan had Bryan Mone, a guy who is clinging to an NFL roster spot because of his ability to stuff the run, despite the outstanding results overall—barely total 200 yards for the Badgers before a late drive in garbage time. When Wisconsin was going after the DTs, though:
Michigan's DL scuffled against the ground game. Multiple guys ended up on the ground, and it was all perfectly legal. … Even when Michigan was able to close off gaps there was usually someone else who wasn't able to hold up and a cutback became available. Both Winovich and Mone got pancaked on the Taylor run that immediately preceded the jet touchdown:
It's tough to get anyone down in the backfield when the OL is consistently able to reset the LOS a couple yards downfield, or when someone's on the ground.
Jonathan Taylor went for 101 yards on just 17 carries and Wisconsin added two big jet sweeps to rush for an alarming 7.2 YPC, but Paul Chryst went crazy and repeatedly threw on third and three or shorter. It felt like his decision-making bailed Michigan out of what could have been an ugly grinder.
Now Mone is gone. Kemp remains; both of Michigan's other DTs with any experience have been banged up. If Mike Dwumfour is unavailable, Michigan has a choice to make at DT:
- Play Donovan Jeter and Carlo Kemp on every standard down.
- Rotate in either true freshmen or 270-pound converted fullback Ben Mason.
- Slide Kwity Paye or Aidan Hutchinson inside and put Josh Uche on the field.
It won't surprise anyone who's read this site for the past month that its preference is for the Uche option, because the potential for explosive TFLs and passing downs is probably worth the occasional gash.
At least Michigan's losses are offset by some of Wisconsin's. The Badgers graduated four starters, returning just AA center Tyler Biadasz. They do have a second quasi-starter: left tackle Cole Van Lanen played enough last year to garner PFF's approval as a devastating run blocker and, somehow, their highest-graded tackle nationally. That's faintly absurd for a guy who didn't even start but no doubt means something.
The rest of the OL is new, and right tackle Logan Bruss is questionable. There was a clear bifurcation between the old and the new when Seth charted them against USF:
Senior LG Jason Erdmann (+2/-2, –2 protection), who has appeared in 43 games as the "tight end" stuffed into a jersey with a number in the 90s, has been holding a slim lead over former top-150 prospect LG Kayden Lyles (+2/-1, –3 pass pro), who's understandably behind after playing defensive end all last year. Erdmann is a big, stiff piece of farm equipment and little more; Lyles is strong and athletic but popped up often for his limited snaps for allowing pressure up the gut. RG Josh Seltzner (+2.3/-3) is squat and strong but not very athletic; when he makes contact guys move, but he let some quicker players shoot by him. A +0.5 he picked up for tripping then managing to still harass a LB is emblematic of his downfield play. LT Cole Van Lanen (+9/-2, –3 protection) and C Tyler Biadasz (+10.5/-2) are discussed in the dangerman section.
If Michigan can get after the three iffy bits they can make up for some incidents where Biadasz or Van Lanen give Michigan the business.
Michigan does catch a break at the tight end position, where the Badgers will be down three guys. Jake Ferguson is a guy generating a lot of hype after a breakout redshirt freshman year but at 245 pounds is definitely on the flex end of the tight end spectrum. Seth:
The guy I was most disappointed with was TE Jake Ferguson, Barry Alvarez's grandson, who was PFF's top returning TE in the Big Ten. His UFR-style charting had him +4.5/-9 in the run game, and he wasn't even the tight end asked to make the really hard blocks.
275-pound Luke Benzschawel would have given Wisconsin some uncomfortable MEGABEEF options. Bonus OL snaps are a possibility, always.
Michigan is in tough given their DT situation and is going to have to pull some stuff out of Don Brown's bag of tricks. Brown hasn't had to make chicken salad much in his tenure at Michigan but has a rich tapestry of weird stuff he's run through when forced to turn BC, Maryland, and UConn-level talent into success. Uche, Hudson, and Glasgow give him a set of elite blitzers he's going to try to use to mitigate Wisconsin's crunching approach. A lot will hinge on whether Taylor can make the occasional TFL into a chunk play. Survey says maybe.
KEY MATCHUP: SECOND DT-TYPE SUBSTANCE vs UTTER DESTRUCTION. Jeter or Hutchinson or whoever, Wisconsin's going to try to whoop up on that guy.
Pass Defense vs Wisconsin
Van Lanen will play; will Dwumfour [Patrick Barron]
Michigan's defense had such a successful outing against the Badgers last year because Alex Hornibrook was horrible and also threw two bad interceptions, as opposed to Shea Patterson being horrible and also running for 81 yards on one play. Hornibrook transferred to Florida State, where he is grateful to have not won the starting job, and Wisconsin has turned to Jack Coan.
Coan wasn't supposed to beat out Graham Mertz, the most highly-touted QB Wisconsin has signed in a long time, after a sophomore year in which he thudded to 5.5 YPA and a 5-3 TD-INT ratio on 82 attempts. Mertz completed a fair number of passes; pretty much all of them were at or near the line of scrimmage. Those numbers don't even encompass how bad Coan looked for people flipping through Wisconsin games, or graded at PFF:
This doesn't bode well for Wisconsin in 2019.
Of the 119 FBS QBs returning who dropped back to pass at least 100 times last season – Jack Coan has the second-lowest grade.
His 41.4 overall grade last season is only above Artur Sitkowski of Rutgers. https://t.co/myoPbVNUwP
— Cam Mellor (@PFF_Cam) August 1, 2019
So of course he's come out on fire in 2019.
Can Jack Coan keep up his high level of play once conference games begin? pic.twitter.com/kRbpC5OqaP
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 11, 2019
It is possible for players to get radically better, just not the ones you, a Michigan fan, would really really like to. Coan's completing 76% of his passes for 9.6 yards an attempt and while the quality of opposition has been bad the shots downfield have been on point.
One giant help in this regard: the return of Quintez Cephus after he was acquitted of sexual assault charges. Cephus gives Wisconsin a downfield jump ball threat they palpably lacked a year ago and Coan's YPA thanks him for it. He's averaging 19 yards a catch; other UW receivers max out around ten. Wisconsin has also started involving Taylor in the passing game some; he has three easy touchdowns on five catches. The rest of the WR corps is the same as it was last year. They're mostly short, mostly decent, and just guys. Ferguson is a potential exception as a tight end who's difficult to match up with.
Wisconsin was shockingly bad in pass protection a year ago, finishing 104th in sack rate allowed, and they've given up four sacks against weak competition so far. Van Lanen is an okay to good pass blocker and an elite mauler on the ground; meanwhile the right tackle spot is in some flux. Passing downs should be a spot where Michigan can boot UW off the field, as they'll be able to go with their jetpack package and unleash Uche and friends at a relatively inexperienced OL without a true shut-down OT.
Getting there, as always, is the thing.
KEY MATCHUP: CEPHUS vs LAVERT HILL. Surely Michigan will match Hill up against the most dangerous UW receiver by some distance, and surely Wisconsin is going to boot it up to Cephus anyway. Quien es mas macho?
Punter Anthony Lotti returns after a mediocre junior season during which he averaged 38.6 yards a punt; he's added six more this year of about the same length. The saving grace for Wisconsin is that only one of those was returned. Lotti split time with Connor Allen last year so part of this may be on him but opponents got off 17 returns last year for 11.2 yards a pop thanks to a Minnesota TD. They will probably be net losers in a field position battle if Michigan can just field Lotti's punts.
Wisconsin might have kicking issues. Sophomore Collin Larsh is 1/3 on the season and did not get a look last year despite Rafael Gaglianone going 10/17. Those misses are from 30 and 51, FWIW. His make is from 28.
Wisconsin return units did zilch last year. Tiny person Jack Dunn has been productive on punts so far this year with an 11.6 average on a whopping 11 returns. 11 returns on 17 total punts is a ton; Michigan might give back their punting advantage if they can't contain Dunn with their pro-style approach. e
KEY MATCHUP: AHHHH YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS
- Michigan isn't contacting Taylor before he gets three yards downfield.
- The arc game isn't buying Michigan any blockers.
- Patterson is exiting clean pockets.
Cackle with knowing glee if…
- Ruiz, Onwenu, and Bredeson are too much for the Wisconsin DL to handle.
- Coan evaporates in a pile of last year.
- Bombs away at Collins works.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 (Baseline: 5; +1 for Road Game, +1 for Recent History As Underdogs, +1 for DT Depth Vs Wisconsin, +1 for General Early Season Malaise, –1 for This Is A Super Light/Young UW Front No Matter What, –1 for Paul Chryst Is Probably Going Full Frames At Some Point.)
Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline: 5; +1 for League Game, Smoke, +1 for Irritating Stats Can Get Shelved, +1 for I'd Like To Feel Nice And Good Things Sometimes, +1 for Loss In This Game Makes Rest Of Year Look Not So Great)
Loss will cause me to… swear off cheese for upwards of three minutes.
Win will cause me to… climb out of BPONE, at least temporarily.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I dunno. Wisconsin's clobbered a couple of really bad teams; Michigan had a weird game against MTSU and a weird game against Army in which they lost all the fumbles and played nothing like this offensive style. Meanwhile Wisconsin has been so unchallenged that a defensive front consisting of no DTs and two DEs has crushed opposition ground games. Pretty much anything could happen.
Both defensive fronts will be challenged to hold their ground and fail in that regard, so it'll be about who's able to cook up the better ways to mitigate that. Michigan has an advantage there since they've got a number of top-end blitz threats and Wisconsin lost their ILBs and has just Baun as an established sort of good rusher. Meanwhile time in the pocket should also favor Michigan.
If Patterson can just keep it together, make the right reads, and not exit the pocket into the teeth of seven guys looking at him Michigan should win this game. He did not do that last year in this game. He did not do that against Army. He has had two weeks to heal up from his injury and get better situated in the new offense. Can he progress?
I don't know that, either.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Coan outperforms Patterson.
- Charbonnet truth is somewhere in the middle; he plays, but is limited.
- Wisconsin, 25-23.
It is the kind of forecast where you really have to start thinking about questions like "what happens if they can't get this thing in?" Weather channel is usually far more accurate than Accuweather, and if you look at their hourly, there is a 50+ percent of Thunderstorms the entire damn day, like into the night. Hopefully that changes, but it is a brutal forecast.
Made it out to Ann Arbor to watch this game in the stadium last year. It felt like Chryst handed us the W on a silver platter with his inexplicable 3rd down play calling.
As much as we've harped on Harbaugh for "turtling," that was one of the worst offensive game plans I've ever witnessed.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Chryst calls a pass play on 3rd and 3 from the Wisconsin 45 yard line despite running at 7 ypc.
- Chryst punts the ball on 4th and 3 from the Wisconsin 45 yard line despite running at 7 ypc.
If the weather turns this game into a slog, I don't see how Michigan stands a chance. If the rain makes throwing impossible, I see Wisconsin with a clear advantage in their running game over Michigan's repeated shotgun formation runs up the middle.
My memory fails me, but has Michigan played well and won in any bad weather games recently?
I do not feel good about this game. I think Brian's prediction is generous. Hoping the offense comes out showing new life compared to the last couple weeks. Also hope the team keeps it close and competitive. Just don't get blown out.
Don’t think we win, given injuries, team playing tense, weather and so on. If there are t-storms, delays will make for an even longer losing experience, a la Utah 2014. Good luck to those who watch it live. And safe travels.