ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst put it best when asked to weigh the magnitude of his team’s Big Ten Conference game Saturday at No. 4 Michigan.
“The way this season has played out to this point, there’s a lot of attention to this game,” Chryst said Tuesday on the Big Ten football coaches teleconference.
Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) hasn’t faced No. 8 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) since 2010, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh continues to reiterate that regardless of records and rankings, he and his staff prepare each week as if it is a championship game — and some have already forecasted this as a preview of the Big Ten championship game.
“We start at the beginning of the season looking at every team on our schedule as teams that we were going to have to highly prepare for, and respect will be at the highest going into each and every one of those games,” Harbaugh said.
Here’s what Michigan will need to focus on in preparation for the Badgers:
1. Continue to strive for balance between run and pass
Michigan had its best rushing numbers of the season last Saturday against Penn State: 326 rushing yards, including a season-high 107 from De’Veon Smith and 81 from Karan Higdon. Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight remains consistent, but wasn’t overpowering against the Nittany Lions, finishing with 189 yards and a touchdown on 21-of-34 passing.
But it was Michigan’s ground game that was optimal, leaning on the running backs in a conference game against an undermanned defense.
2. This will be an exercise in stamina, both on offense and defense
Wisconsin doesn’t believe in the no-huddle, hurry-up offense. Instead, the Badgers will aim to have long, sustained drives. Wisconsin averages 37 minutes of possession through four games, and in last week’s 30-6 win over Michigan State, its longest touchdown drive was 7 minutes, 38 seconds — a 16-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Eric Steffes’ 1-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (11.8 points per game) and rushing defense (80.5 yards), and is second in the Big Ten in total defense (277 yards). Opponents have scored just three touchdowns and four field goals in four games against the Badgers defense.
3. Who will step up in absence of Jeremy Clark?
Clark, a cornerback, left the field on a cart during the fourth quarter against Penn State, and Harbaugh confirmed Monday that Clark is done for the season with an ACL tear in his right knee. Harbaugh formed a list of candidates to fill in for Clark: Brandon Watson, Lavert Hill and David Long, as well as Jourdan Lewis, the All-American cornerback who returned last week after missing Michigan’s first three games with back issues and a muscle strain.
Experience, and the lack thereof, could be an issue for whomever replaces Clark at cornerback. Watson has five tackles in four games, while Hill has done spot duty in three games. Long is a freshman who has yet to play in a game.
4. Sustained pressure from defensive line
Michigan took advantage of a Penn State offensive line that’s been a continuous work in progress, but against Wisconsin, this game could be won in the trenches. The Badgers, however, are tinkering with their offensive line this week. They look set to start Brett Connors at center and move Michael Deiter from center to left guard to replace Micah Kapoi (foot injury), the second Badger lineman out with an injury, along with left guard Jon Dietzen (shoulder).
Like Michigan, Wisconsin utilizes a scheme that incorporates fullbacks and tight ends who can block, run and catch. But unlike Michigan, the Badgers have also done the quarterback shuffle in the first month of the season, replacing Bart Houston last week with Alex Hornibrook, who was 16 for 26 for 195 yards and a touchdown, and was intercepted once in Saturday’s 30-6 win over Michigan State.
5. Don’t get overwhelmed by the stakes
This is a top-10 matchup, but Michigan hasn’t defeated an opponent ranked in the top 10 in eight years, when they beat then-No. 9 Wisconsin 27-25 on Sept. 27, 2008. So a win over the Badgers would be a feather in the Wolverines’ cap. The same goes for Wisconsin, which surprised everyone with Saturday’s win over the Spartans, three weeks after a 16-14 win over LSU.