ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s not even October, and there’s already high anticipation for a Big Ten conference matchup between a pair of top-10 teams.
When No. 4 Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) hosts No. 8 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday at Michigan Stadium, the Badgers return to Michigan for the second week in a row, looking for their second upset in a row.
Saturday’s game will showcase a pair of young quarterbacks in Michigan’s Wilton Speight and Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook. Hornibrook took over as Wisconsin’s starter last week and helped steer the Badgers to an impressive 30-6 win against then-No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing. Wisconsin also wields the Big Ten’s top scoring defense (11.8 points per game) and top rushing defense (80.5 yards per game).
Saturday is the first meeting between the Wolverines and the Badgers since 2010.
Jason Galloway, who covers Wisconsin football for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, offers some insight on the Badgers. You can read Jason’s work and coverage of the Badgers here, and you can follow Jason and his coverage on Twitter: @jason_galloway
Q. Do you think Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor could be a preview of the Big Ten championship game, or is that being too presumptuous this early in the season?
Galloway: It certainly could be, but there’s plenty of football to be played. The Badgers’ next four games could determine their place in the West division. After this weekend’s game and a bye week, they play Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska in a row. A loss to either Iowa or Nebraska could be brutal as far as tiebreakers go, especially if Wisconsin isn’t able to beat Michigan or Ohio State. I would have to make the Badgers favorites in the division at the moment based on the way they’re playing, though. The Wolverines still have that final game at Ohio State that could be for the East Division title, and games at Michigan State and Iowa won’t be easy, either. So, I do think it’s much too early to predict this as the eventual matchup in Indianapolis.
Q. Does Wisconsin have — pardon the cliche — a quarterback controversy?
Galloway: Not at all, especially after last week’s game at Michigan State. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook replaced Bart Houston in the second half versus Georgia State in Week 3 and made his first start against the Spartans. While his final stat line won’t wow anyone, he made a number of huge throws to keep drives alive and his interception was a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. He completed 9 of 12 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown on third downs in a hostile environment at Spartan Stadium, and the majority of those were third-and-longs. Houston wasn’t terrible the first three weeks, but his accuracy was more erratic and he always seemed capable of making a mistake that would lead to a turnover. Hornibrook looks like the real deal, and I don’t think he’ll be giving up the starting job anytime soon.
Q. How has Wisconsin managed to be successful despite injuries to Corey Clement, injuries to its linebackers AND a quarterback change?
Galloway: The big injury at inside linebacker — a torn ACL for sophomore Chris Orr on the first defensive snap of the season — was easily compensated for because of how much depth Wisconsin has at that position. The Badgers dealt with injuries at that position last year, and it allowed some reserves to shine and make a name for themselves. Orr, along with current starters T.J. Edwards and Jack Cichy, were all first-team level players coming into the season. If they had to lose someone for the season, that was the absolute best position for it to happen. I mentioned the quarterback change above. I think the switch actually really helped the Badgers offense, and I think since Houston and Hornibrook battled for the job all camp, Hornibrook had earned enough first-team reps prior to last week where chemistry wasn’t affected. This offense is at its best when Clement is healthy, but due to Hornibrook’s play and an offensive line that’s improved greatly from a year ago, it doesn’t appear to be as dependent on him as it was last season.
Q. Who are two key players — one offense, one defense — Michigan should keep an eye on, and why?
Galloway: Left tackle Ryan Ramczyk is one to watch. He wasn’t eligible last season after transferring from UW-Stevens Point, but I believe he’s already established himself as one of the best tackles in the Big Ten. Michigan loves getting after the quarterback, and thus has only allowed teams to convert 12 percent of third-down tries this season, so Ramczyk could play a major factor in trying to slow down pressure coming off the edge. Defensively, keep an eye out for outside linebacker T.J. Watt. He’s the brother of Houston Texans defensive end and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and has made a major impact in his first year as a starter. T.J. Watt was actually a tight end before last season but has become a beast on the other side of the ball. He’s tied for seventh nationally with 4.5 sacks, and his biggest strength may actually be stopping the run.
Q. To those who aren’t familiar with the Big Ten West, are Nebraska and Wisconsin the out-of-the-gate favorites, or is there a sleeper team that’s being overlooked?
Galloway: I think you still have to include Iowa in that group. I know the Hawkeyes lost to North Dakota State and didn’t look good against Rutgers last week, but this was a 12-0 team last year that returned a lot of key players. I think they’ll find a groove at some point this season, I just don’t know if it’ll be too late when they do. Their three toughest games — Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska — are all at home this year, and that’s not an easy place to get a win. It’s difficult to see Nebraska losing this season outside of road games at Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. Like I said earlier, I think the Badgers are the favorites as the moment, but they may HAVE to beat Iowa and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks in order to win the division if they aren’t able to knock off Michigan or Ohio State.