When pundits examined Wisconsin’s schedule before the season, a matchup against Michigan in the home finale was considered perhaps the Badgers’ most important game. As it has turned out, that’s exactly the case.
No. 5 Wisconsin (10-0, 7-0) plays host to No. 24 Michigan (8-2, 5-2) on Saturday in a game the Badgers must win to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive. Schedule strength and style points no longer matter as much as they did a few weeks ago. If the Badgers can close out the regular season with victories against Michigan and Minnesota and win the Big Ten Championship Game, they should be assured of a playoff spot.
Here are three keys to the Michigan game for Wisconsin, as well as a final score prediction.
1. Stop throwing interceptions
This was my No. 1 key for Wisconsin’s game last week against Iowa. And then Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw 3 interceptions, including 2 that were returned for touchdowns. Fortunately for Wisconsin, the Badgers defense put together an epic performance and allowed only 66 yards of total offense to Iowa. At some point — and it could be this week — all those interceptions are going to catch up to Wisconsin.
Hornibrook’s pass efficiency and completion percentage are still good, but he now has thrown 12 interceptions. Only three FBS quarterbacks have thrown more this season. There doesn’t appear to be a common theme with those interceptions. But it will be vital against Michigan’s defense that Hornibrook has enough time in the pocket to find his receivers and that he makes good decisions if he is under pressure.
Michigan ranks tied for sixth in the FBS in sacks per game (3.3). Wolverines defensive end Chase Winovich is tied for first in the Big Ten with Wisconsin outside linebacker Garret Dooley in sacks per game, while Michigan linebacker Khaleke Hudson is tied for third. This will be the most difficult defense Wisconsin has faced this season, and Hornibrook had better be ready.
2. Make Michigan QB Brandon Peters beat Wisconsin’s defense
Brandon Peters has taken over as Michigan’s starting quarterback and is expected to start against Wisconsin, even though Wilton Speight returned from a back injury and practiced this week. Peters is completing 60.9 percent of his passes for 329 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. But he has been asked to do very little in the Wolverines’ last three games.
Instead, Michigan’s run game has been dominant. The Wolverines carried 51 times for 334 yards with 4 touchdowns against Rutgers and added 371 yards rushing with 4 touchdowns against Minnesota. Last week in Michigan’s 35-10 victory against Maryland, the Wolverines scored 3 rushing touchdowns.
“You just see how effective they are running the ball right now,” Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “Teams have not made Peters beat them. Not that he can’t. Nobody’s been able to make him assume that role on the team. So it’s kind of one of those things where if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“They’re running the football. They’ve got great running backs, great O-line, tight ends, fullbacks. A lot of different personnel groups they use. They’re doing it extremely well. You have to try to make a team one-dimensional, and obviously they want to run the football right now.”
Michigan is expected to have its top three running backs available for the Wisconsin game — Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and Chris Evans. Isaac didn’t play last week with an undisclosed lower-body injury, and Higdon missed the second half with an ankle injury. Both players practiced this week.
Wisconsin’s defense has been so good at taking away an opponent’s strength, and the Badgers lead the FBS in run defense. If the Badgers can slow the Wolverines ground game, it could be a long day for the Michigan offense.
3. Continue to put trust in Wisconsin’s receivers
Two weeks ago, Wisconsin lost No. 1 wide receiver Quintez Cephus for the season to a right knee injury. There was reason for concern about how the Badgers would respond without him against Iowa. But the trio of Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor and A.J. Taylor stepped up in a big way.
Pryor scored the first 2 touchdowns of his career, which included a nice 12-yard snag over an Iowa defender. Taylor added a 5-yard touchdown catch, and Davis set career highs with 4 receptions for 74 yards. Michigan has the No. 2 pass defense in the country (144.5 yards per game), so Hornibrook will have to take advantage of the few opportunities that are available. Running back Jonathan Taylor has carried 29 times in each of the last two games and figures to handle the majority of the workload again. But, much like the Michigan offense, Wisconsin can’t be one-dimensional if it hopes to tough-out an important victory.
Wisconsin and Michigan have the two best defenses in the Big Ten in terms of both total defense and pass defense. This seems like the type of game that will feature plenty of punts and few big offensive plays. Wisconsin’s defense has been so good for so long that it’s become almost an expectation that it will carry the team. If the Badgers offense can show a bit more consistency, Wisconsin will be scary. Michigan has foiled some great Wisconsin seasons in years past, but this time, the Badgers will prevail in a close one. Wisconsin 20, Michigan 14.
Game 1 prediction: Wisconsin 48, Utah State 7; Game 1 score: Wisconsin 59, Utah State 10
Game 2 prediction: Wisconsin 52, Florida Atlantic 10; Game 2 score: Wisconsin 31, Florida Atlantic 14
Game 3 prediction: Wisconsin 27, BYU 10; Game 3 score: Wisconsin 40, BYU 6
Game 4 prediction: Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 13; Game 4 score: Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 24
Game 5 prediction: Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 17; Game 5 score: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 17
Game 6 prediction: Wisconsin 31, Purdue 14; Game 6 score: Wisconsin 17, Purdue 9
Game 7 prediction: Wisconsin 38, Maryland 17; Game 7 score: Wisconsin 38, Maryland 13
Game 8 prediction: Wisconsin 42, Illinois 10; Game 8 score: Wisconsin 24, Illinois 10
Game 9 prediction: Wisconsin 35, Indiana 17; Game 9 score: Wisconsin 45, Indiana 17
Game 10 prediction: Wisconsin 21, Iowa 17; Game 10 score: Wisconsin 38, Iowa 14