ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan withstood a collapse in a major facet of special teams. It continued to play, after third-quarter turnover that allowed Wisconsin to even the score. It overcame penalties that could have rattled the Wolverines’ collective psyche.
In a matchup of top-10 teams Saturday at Michigan Stadium, one team left a loser. And despite all those gaffes, a couple of well-timed passing plays in the fourth quarter helped No. 4 Michigan to a 14-7 win against No. 8 Wisconsin.
In a grind-it-out game against the blue-collar Badgers, the Wolverines needed one long pass — Wilton Speight’s 46-yard touchdown pass to Amara Darboh with less than eight minutes left — to remain undefeated. Michigan also got one of the most dynamic interceptions of the year with less than two minutes left, as All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis picked off Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook with a one-handed catch.
Here are five things we learned today about Michigan:
Five things we learned
5. Michigan’s offensive line needs to protect quarterback Wilton Speight.
By the end of the third quarter, Speight had been sacked three times by Wisconsin, which had four sacks. Prior to Saturday, Michigan had given up just five sacks in its first four games. Protecting the passer will be vital for the Wolverines, who have gotten otherwise steady production from the redshirt sophomore.
4. The kicking game needs work — or a new kicker.
By halftime, Michigan kicker Kenny Allen was 0-for-2 on field goals — he went wide right on a 31-yard attempt less than six minutes into the second quarter, then missed a 43-yard attempt about four minutes later, going wide left.
By the time Wisconsin had lined up for its ensuing drive, sophomore kicker Ryan Tice was already warming up on the sideline, but Tice couldn’t thread the needle either. With 2:25 left in the third quarter, Tice’s 40-yard attempt went wide right.
3. Michigan’s fullback continues to do his job.
Khalid Hill scored Michigan’s first-half touchdown on a 1-yard run four seconds into the second quarter, finishing an 11-play, 77-yard drive that bridged the first and second quarters. While he entered Saturday with 17 yards on nine carries, Hill has thrived in short-yardage situations for Michigan.
2. Sustained drives took possession time away from Wisconsin.
It’s one of the more underrated facets of the game, but holding the ball worked to Michigan’s advantage. Not so much on the scoreboard but merely keeping the ball away from the Badgers. Michigan had 15:45 to 14:15 possession time in the first half , but had 37 plays to Wisconsin’s 29. Michigan’s drives didn’t result in points (see No. 4) but kept the ball out of Wisconsin’s hands in the first half. When it was in Wisconsin’s hands, the Badgers couldn’t move much forward.
1. How Michigan responds after its closest game of the season will be paramount in the Big Ten East race.
After recording at least 40 points in its first four games, Michigan faced its stiffest test when it faced Wisconsin. The running game and the passing game found a balance, but had to win against a team that made Michigan labor for its fifth win. Fixes need to be made, specifically on special teams.
One play before Darboh’s go-ahead touchdown, Speight found Darboh for a 15-yard catch that put the Wolverines in Wisconsin’s territory. After that, all Speight needed was timing and a receiver in the right spot — and Speight found Darboh downfield, behind a defender.
What will Michigan do next against a top-10 team? Prior to Saturday, Michigan hadn’t beaten a top-10 team since 2008, when it beat Wisconsin at Michigan Stadium. Michigan broke that eight-year drought Saturday, and did it in its closest game of the season.
If this is how the Wolverines perform against Wisconsin, how, now, will Michigan withstand its traditional rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State? Wisconsin came into Michigan Stadium undefeated, holding up the mantle for the Big Ten West. Michigan’s offense sputtered at times but the defense — and Michigan’s kicking shortcomings— kept the Wolverines in the game.
By the fourth quarter, Michigan’s defense had held Wisconsin to four of 11 on third-downs, still a strong point for the Wolverines. However, Michigan was only 2 for 10 through the third quarter in that same statistical category. Early in the fourth, Michigan also missed a prime third-down conversion when Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon broke up Speight’s pass on third-and-3, intended for Amara Darboh.
What it means
Wisconsin exposed Michigan’s flaws, as did Michigan to Wisconsin. In a top-10 matchup, you’ll either see quality football or grind-it-out football, in which two teams will try to capitalize on each others’ weaknesses. This turned into a low-scoring, grudge match that — as a few of the Wolverines predicted — would be won by doing the dirty work.