ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There are Big Ten games, and then there are really big conference games. But this one, we didn’t see it coming.
A month ago, few would have projected Saturday’s game between No. 4 Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) and No. 8 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) to be a showdown of undefeated teams. Maybe for Michigan, given its number of returning players from last year’s 10-3 team combined with a not-so-challenging nonconference schedule.
But Wisconsin? Come on. With teams like then-No. 5 LSU and then-No. 8 Michigan State on the Badgers’ schedule ahead of a trip to Ann Arbor, being 4-0 seemed extremely unlikely.
Then throw in a quarterback swap due of inefficiency and a shuffle of running backs and linebackers due to injury, and you really have to be surprised that the Badgers are still perfect. It’s amazing, especially when you factor in a redshirt freshman quarterback like Alex Hornibrook, who was so confident and cocky that he broke the news he was replacing Bart Houston as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback before his coaches did.
All that adds new intrigue to Saturday’s game. Someone is going to leave Michigan Stadium with a loss, since there’s no such thing as a tie in Big Ten football anymore — those have been outlawed from college football for more than 20 years.
When asked Monday what he expected from Wisconsin, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh pointed out Wisconsin’s sheer size.
“I’m wondering if the field is going to be wide enough,” Harbaugh joked. “And they play extremely hard. I coached (former Wisconsin linebacker) Chris Borland a few years back (with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers) and it’s a team of Chris Borlands. High, high energy. Tough, guys who can run and a big, physical team. Very impressed.”
When Michigan looks across the field at Wisconsin, they’ll see a similar style of offense, which uses a fullback and a tight end much of the time.
“We’ll see who’s the best at it,” Michigan fullback Khalid Hill said. “We’re not going to say we’re better than them, but we’re going to respect them as a team. They’re top 10 just like us, and we’re top 10 just like them, so we’ve got to respect them. And we’ve got to prepare.”
Hill doesn’t anticipate a lot of passing against Wisconsin — even though the Badgers are seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense (196.5 yards a game) and the Wolverines are fifth in the conference in passing (238 yards a game) — and makes a projection for Saturday.
“It’s going to be who’s most physical,” Hill said. “It’s going to be who goes out there and moves the ball. Who’s going to get down, get dirty, and who’s going to go in the trenches.”
Defensive end Chase Winovich is eager to face a team with an offense that’s completely different than what Michigan has faced, after going against three teams (Central Florida, Colorado and Penn State) that play a hurry-up or a no-huddle scheme.
“This style of offense is going back to my roots,” said Winovich, who grew up in Western Pennsylvania. “Pittsburgh football is smash-mouth football, and that’s what I grew up with (in Pittsburgh).”
A scheduling quirk sets up the first meeting between the Badgers and the Wolverines since Nov. 20, 2010, at Michigan Stadium. The last time these two teams met, former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson set two NCAA records in Michigan’s 48-28 loss to Wisconsin. Robinson finished 2010 with the most rushing yards in a single season by a quarterback (1,702) and eclipsed the previous record against Wisconsin. (Two years later, Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch set the current record of 1,815 yards). Robinson also became the first quarterback to rush and pass for 1,500 yards in a season, finishing with 2,570 passing yards in 2010.
The bottom line, though, isn’t about records. It’s about who will leave Michigan Stadium Saturday evening with a win. Getting that win would be significant. It would give the Wolverines confidence. But it wouldn’t be the be-all, end-all for the Wolverines.
“A win,” Winovich said, “can hurt you as much as a loss.”