ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan passed its first Big Ten Conference test Saturday, but needed some fourth-quarter heroics to earn a 14-7 win against Wisconsin.
The No. 8 Badgers limited Michigan’s rushers to 130 yards and forced quarterback Wilton Speight to scramble at times, even as the pass became vital to the Wolverines. Michigan also overcame a shoddy kicking game and spotty play by its offensive line.
This is what happens when No. 4 Michigan (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) faces a grind-it-out, blue-collar team that exposes some of its weaknesses, much in the same way Michigan has done against its opponents.
Yet two big plays — Amara Darboh’s 46-yard touchdown catch with less than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and Jourdan Lewis’ late-game interception — helped Michigan remain undefeated.
Here are grades for Michigan following its win against Wisconsin:
Offense (3 stars)
Michigan couldn’t find a steady rhythm on offense. Wisconsin sacked Speight four times Saturday, which was unusual. In Michigan’s first four games, it only gave up five sacks.
Michigan had to air it out more, something it couldn’t successfully do until the fourth quarter, when Speight hit Darboh for the go-ahead touchdown. At 46 yards, it was his longest pass against the Badgers. Speight finished with 219 yards on 20 of 32 passing, and was intercepted once.
The pass outweighed the run in this game, even against a depleted yet still effective Wisconsin rush defense. Michigan finished with 130 yards on 44 carries, less than half of its rushing output last week against Penn State (326 yards)
Defense (4 stars)
Michigan held Wisconsin to 159 yards of offense, including only 71 yards rushing. Michigan’s secondary, however, was vital in defending Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, a redshirt freshman who was making his second career start.
Cornerback Channing Stribling had two tackles, two of Michigan’s three interceptions and two of Michigan’s five pass breakups, and led a secondary whose performance was punctuated by Lewis’ one-handed interception with less than three minutes left in the game.
Special teams (2.5 stars)
In what appeared to be an in-game audition for the starting kicker job, Kenny Allen and Ryan Tice went a combined 0-for-3. Allen missed a 31-yard attempt and a 43-yard attempt, and Tice missed a 40-yard attempt. It’s fair to say nobody won the job Saturday.
Michigan left nine points on the board because of those misses, and after the win, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he’ll re-open the competition for Michigan’s starting kicker position. It’s hard to say who has the advantage in that race: Allen is 4-for-8 on field goals and 24-for-24 on extra points, while also handling punting and kickoff duties. Tice is 0-for-1 on field goals and 6-for-6 on point-after kicks.
Coaching (4 stars)
Give a handful of those four stars to Jedd Fisch, Michigan’s passing game coordinator. Early last week, several of Michigan’s players forecasted a deep-ball game by its quarterback and receivers, and Fisch called Wisconsin’s number in the fourth quarter, drawing up a long throw from Speight to Darboh — a play initially intended for tight end Jake Butt.
Harbaugh was more liberal with his grades, giving Michigan’s defense, Michigan’s defensive coaching staff and defensive coordinator Don Brown an “A-plus.” The defensive line got a boost with the return of nose tackle Bryan Mone, and got one of its best outings from tackle Ryan Glasgow, who had five tackles and a pass breakup.
About the only strike against the coaching was having to regroup in-game in the wake of the kicking woes.
Overall (3.5 stars)
Unlike its previous four games, Michigan didn’t dominate its opponent. An offense that entered Saturday averaging 52 points a game had trouble not just scoring, but producing, as drives stalled or mistakes were made, such as when Wisconsin’s Derrick Tindal intercepted Speight on first-and-18 from the Badgers’ 33-yard line less than five minutes into the second half. All those failed field-goal attempts didn’t help either.
Smart decisions and key plays, especially in the fourth quarter, helped the Wolverines remain undefeated.