ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan has the chance to remain undefeated — and to repeat some glorious history — in this weekend’s marquee Big Ten matchup.
The fourth-ranked Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) host No. 8 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Michigan Stadium, looking for their first win over a top-10 team since 2008 — when they beat No. 9 Wisconsin, 27-25 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan has dominated out of the gate this season, averaging 52 points per game, scoring at least 45 points in each of its four games, and holding an AP top-5 ranking for the first time since opening the 2007 season at No. 5.
Wisconsin also enters Saturday’s game undefeated, and does so despite a quarterback switch and injuries to several of its key players.
When Michigan has the ball
The Wolverines will try to run the ball against the Big Ten’s top rushing defense (80.5 yards per game), a week after notching its highest rushing output of the season (326 yards) in a 49-10 win against Penn State. Michigan wields a young but already-poised quarterback in Wilton Speight, who will make his fifth consecutive start as a redshirt sophomore. Speight averages 218.8 passing yards a game, and will face a defense that sacked Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor 4 times last weekend and intercepted him 3 times — but also allows nearly 200 passing yards per game.
Wisconsin’s depth, however, is on defense, particularly at linebacker. T.J. Watt, seventh in the nation with 4.5 sacks, leads the way, with T.J. Edwards and Jack Cichy combining for 40 tackles so far. Wisconsin, however, will be without linebacker Vince Biegel (foot surgery), one of its strongest pass rushers.
When Wisconsin has the ball
Expect methodical, sustained drives from the Badgers, and expect a team that will take its time when it has the ball. Wisconsin will utilize an offensive scheme that’s much like Michigan’s in the fact that the Badgers also utilize fullbacks and tight ends. Wisconsin also boasts running back Corey Clement, who insists he’s healthy despite practicing with a heavily taped ankle this week.
Quarterback, however, has been THE question mark for the Badgers. And the question hasn’t been how to fix any particular struggles under center, but simply, “who will be the quarterback?” Alex Hornibrook, a redshirt freshman, replaced redshirt senior Bart Houston as the starter last weekend and helped the Badgers to a 30-6 win against Michigan State. Hornibrook was 16 for 26 passing for 195 yards and a touchdown and was intercepted once.
Hornibrook, however, will play behind an offensive line that’s been shuffled because of injuries. On the other side of the ball is a Michigan defense that sacked Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley six times, but is shuffling its secondary after the loss of cornerback Jeremy Clark (ACL tear).
Andrew Endicott takes over as Wisconsin’s kicker after Rafael Gaglianone underwent season-ending back surgery on Thursday.
Gaglianone went 7 for 8 on field goals in Wisconsin’s first three games, but sat out the win against Michigan State, and Endicott kicked a 41-yard field goal but missed an extra point against the Spartans.
Jabrill Peppers will continue to be a focal point at punt returner for Michigan. He had two punt returns for 58 yards against Penn State but had a 53-yard run — which ended when he tripped inside the Penn State 10 — waved off because of a sideline interference penalty against the Wolverines. Michigan special teams coach Jay Harbaugh mentioned this week that Jourdan Lewis could also return punts. Lewis had two kickoff returns for 21 yards against Penn state.
Michigan did not kick any field goals against Penn State, but is 28 for 28 on point-after kicks.
It’s likely that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst put their friendship on the shelf this weekend, in preparation for the matchup of top-10 teams.
Michigan has dominated opponents by exploiting their weaknesses. Seemingly every adjustment Michigan has made in its first four games has succeeded, be it going to the pass when getting stuffed on the run (against UCF), taking advantage of a shaky offensive line to swarm the quarterback and a depleted linebacking corps to maximize the run game (against Penn State), or even capitalizing when the quarterback gets injured (against Colorado).
This week’s test for the Wolverines will be to find out how to get tactical against Wisconsin after facing three hurry-up offenses against UCF, Colorado and Penn State.
If Michigan wins, it will be the biggest step so far on a path toward pursuing an East Division championship, but Michigan State and Ohio State still await later in the season.
If Wisconsin wins, it will show that the Badgers A) are no fluke and B) that this team can thrive, despite injuries and the constant shuffling of players.
Rachel Lenzi’s prediction: Michigan 28, Wisconsin 14
Brandon Justice’s prediction: Michigan 24, Wisconsin 10