Michigan-Wisconsin football: Wolverines pose toughest test yet for Badgers
MADISON, Wis. — A Big Ten game with high stakes may be decided in the trenches.
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JOIN THE TEAM.
The Wolverines (8-2, 5-2, CFP No. 24) would love to shove the undefeated Badgers (10-0, 7-0, CFP No. 5) out of the College Football Playoff picture with a win on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
"There is great speed to it and quickness," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said about the Michigan defense. "It's going to take every guy to make it work, whether that's running the football or protecting the quarterback."
Michigan's defense ranks first in the Big Ten in third-down conversions (23.7 percent), pass defense (144.5 yards per game) and tackles for loss (8.4 per game). Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst can blow up plays at the line of scrimmage. Five Michigan opponents have been held to less than 200 yards of total offense.
With three straight convincing wins since a humiliating loss at Penn State, linebacker Mike McCray said, the Wolverines have regained their confidence.
"We went through a little bit of adversity. We know we can fight through that adversity. Since then, we're closer together," McCray said.
What they don't have is the kind of clear path to the playoff that lies ahead for Wisconsin.
The Badgers' task is simple: Win the last two regular-season games, plus the Big Ten title game, and the playoff committee will be hard-pressed to keep out an undefeated team from a power conference school.
As usual Chryst has his team focused on just the Wolverines. To beat Michigan, the Badgers' offense must break out of its habit of turning the ball over early in games.
An offensive line that dominated Iowa's physical front last week must open holes for Big Ten-leading rusher Jonathan Taylor to get Wisconsin in manageable third-down situations for quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
"It's going to be very similar — two good offenses, two good defenses. It's going to be a physical game," Wisconsin right tackle David Edwards said. "The turnover battle is going to be huge."
Other things to watch on Saturday:
WISCONSIN TURNOVERS: The Badgers gave up four turnovers, including two returned for touchdowns, and still managed to rout Iowa last week because of their top-ranked defense. Imagine how good Wisconsin might be if it didn't make so many miscues. Michigan could turn up the pressure to try to force mistakes out of Hornibrook, who has thrown 11 interceptions in seven Big Ten games. Ball security has also become an issue of late for Taylor, who had two fumbles last week, losing one.
DIFFERENT LOOK: Michigan might have problems, too, with Wisconsin's defense , which leads the country in scoring (13.4 points) and total yardage (247.6). This will also be the first meeting for Michigan against a school with 3-4 defensive scheme. The task starts by trying to block Olive Sagapolu, a 6-foot-2, 346-pound nose tackle.
"From the first snap, something has to be done," Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "They're going to push you around if you let them. We can't let them do that."
COOL AND CALM: Michigan redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters has made the most of his opportunity to play, replacing ineffective John O'Korn, who filled in for injured Wilton Speight. Peters' play has helped Michigan win three straight games, scoring 35 in each.
"It feels like he's been in there all season," receiver Grant Perry said. "He's playing like a vet and it gives us confidence."
PASSING FANCY: When they weren't throwing turnovers, the Badgers were effective enough in the passing game in their first game without injured playmaker Quintez Cephus (right leg). Receiver Kendric Pryor had rushing and receiving touchdowns, while fellow freshman Danny Davis deep-threat potential. For Michigan, cornerback Lavert Hill left last week's game with a concussion and was in the protocol program, coach Jim Harbaugh said.
PLAYING SPOILER: The Wolverines still have a longshot chance to win the Big Ten East Division, but they need a lot of help. They do have clear opportunities to spoil the postseason hopes of Wisconsin this week and Ohio State in the regular season finale next week.
"Especially going to a hostile environment like Wisconsin," Kugler said, "if we can come away with a victory, there's nothing better than that."