The No. 15 University of Wisconsin Badgers (4–1, 2–0 Big Ten) will face their season-defining match-up at the Big House in Anne Arbor, Michigan, this weekend against a No. 12 University of Michigan team (5–1, 3–0 Big Ten).
This is far and away the most difficult opponent this Wisconsin team has seen thus far.
The Badger’s lively start to their conference schedule with a tough win on the road in Iowa, as well as a satisfactory showing against a dreadful University of Nebraska team at home, has those quick to dismiss Wisconsin after their loss against BYU slow to finalize their obituaries to the Badger season.
This hesitance to bury the Wisconsin season will only last as long as this Badger team can hold off its blemishes in its secondary play and pass rush, not to mention the always formidable Jim Harbaugh-coached Wolverine team.
Though the two teams both find their schedules marred with a loss early on in the season, that is where the comparisons falter.
Michigan’s first week loss against Notre Dame was incriminating as a premature rebuke of the new offense run by Junior transfer Shea Patterson. The team only scored a single offensive touchdown against a good, but not elite, Notre Dame defense.
Since then, Patterson has proven himself a capable, if not a skillful, passer. In his six games, Patterson has garnered 1187 yards, a 10–3 touchdown to interception ratio and proven himself an expert on first down, when he sports a 78.8 completion percentage.
Unlike Michigan, who have seemed to move on from their setback, the Badger’s lone loss against BYU is still an open wound and one that will not heal until UW can show what they’re made of with a big statement win like the one that lies within their grasp this Saturday.
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This year’s Wolverine team is like looking in a mirror for the Badgers — or at least it should have been.
Michigan owns the number one defense in the country, a stifling run-stopping force that also yields less passing yards per game (134) than any other team in the nation.
The dominant defense combined with a measured, sustained offensive attack is the Badger mantra, yet it’s been typified instead by their conference foes this season so far.
Rather, the Badgers come into their sixth match-up banged up in their secondary, which was already a weak point. Redshirt freshman safety Scott Nelson will be held out for the first half thanks to a targeting penalty in the second half against Nebraska, and D’Cota Dixon will be playing after landing awkwardly late in the game last week and tweaking his foot.
Though Michigan’s passing attack isn’t exactly prolific, the competence of Patterson combined with explosive receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who was hit for three touchdowns by Patterson in their week three match-up against Southern Methodist University, and their behemoth tight end weapon Zach Gentry, who comes in at a Gronk-like 6 foot 8 inches, 262 pounds and will likely give the inexperienced Badger secondary fits.
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Senior running back Karan Higdon, who recently hit the 2,000 yards marker for his career and is in the midst of his best season, will also serve to keep the UW defense on high alert and test the front seven.
The Wolverine offense is fortunate to not endure too much of the pressure, as they can lean heavily on their well-armored defense.
Despite Michigan’s defensive accolades, it’s no doubt the Badger offense presents a unique challenge.
Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph’s cavalcade of rushing options, of which he used five on last week’s opening drive, will test the Michigan run defense.
This embarrassment of riches allows UW to divert defensive attention from the obvious rushing culprit sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, who is coming off of one of the best performances of his career in which he notched three touchdowns, 221 yards and broke off a career-long 88 yard touchdown run that ignited Camp Randall and all but sent Nebraska packing.
By mobilizing resurgent senior running back Taiwan Deal, the Badger’s hard-nosed short yardage option; sophomore running back Garrett Groshek, who has been a revelation in the passing game to make up for Taylor’s sole deficiency and fullback Alec Ingold, who continues the great name of the Wisconsin fullback, there should be little room for the Michigan defense to get comfortable.
It should be a litmus test for Wisconsin junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who has won over many with his performances as of late, including a game-winning drive on the road in Iowa.
The left-hander, who was recently named to the Maxwell Award Watch List (given to the best all-around player in College Football), will attempt to shirk his role as a game manager and become the play-maker the Badgers will need in this week’s Big Ten encounter.
Saturday will have wide-reaching ripples for both teams. The loser will be kissing their playoff hopes goodbye. The winner will welcome a shiny new triumph on their resume.
The Badgers will take on the Wolverines at 6:30 at the Big House.