The Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan Wolverines will each face their toughest test of the season this Saturday when they face off at Michigan Stadium, AKA The Big House. While the series has historically been dominated by Michigan (49-14-1), the last two meetings have been won by Wisconsin. In the most recent installment, Bret Bielema’s 2010 Badgers ran all over Michigan, including on 29 straight plays in the second half, on their way to a 48-28 victory.
Two head coaches and five seasons later, Michigan figures to be a more formidable opponent for Wisconsin. Led by milk-drinking, khaki-wearing, second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines enter the weekend ranked No. 4 in the country and as 10.5-point favorites. Harbaugh has his team firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball as it enters the second conference game of the season. Offensively, the Wolverines have put up 52 points per game; defensively, they rank in the top 15 nationally in several key statistics; on special teams, they’ve made plays to bury their opponents. The boys in the winged helmets have looked very good through four games.
On the other sideline is another second-year head coach/former quarterback at his alma mater, Paul Chryst. Chryst has “quietly” led his Badgers to a 4-0 record, with wins over two top-10 teams on the season already. They’ll go for a third the same way they went about their first two: physically, confidently and as an underdog.
When and where is the game?
Action kicks off at 2:30 p.m. CT from Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
How can I watch?
The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC. Dave Fleming will handle play-by-play, teaming with Brian Griese and Todd McShay.
How can I stream the game online?
Via WatchESPN.com or the WatchESPN mobile app on iOS or Android.
How can I listen to it on the radio?
Westwood One will handle the national broadcast. Locally, on the Badger Sports Network, where Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas, Mark Tauscher and Patrick Herb will bring you the action. On satellite radio, you’ll find the broadcast on Sirius 84/XM 84. Otherwise, head to BadgerSportsNetwork.com to find it. You can also listen on iHeartRadio (iOS/Android/online) by searching WIBA.
What can I expect to see?
Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten; Depth Chart)
Last week: 30-6 win at Michigan State
Polls: No. 8 in AP Top 25 (last week: No. 11), No. 8 in Amway Coaches Poll (last week: No. 10)
Head coach: Paul Chryst, second season at Wisconsin (14-3)
Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten; Unofficial Depth Chart)
Last week: 49-10 win vs. Penn State
Polls: No. 4 in AP Top 25 (last week: No. 4), No. 5 in Amway Coaches Poll (last week: No. 5)
Head coach: Jim Harbaugh, second season at Michigan (14-3)
When Michigan has the ball:
Strength on strength, at least statistically, will be the story on Saturday. Michigan has rode a balanced attack on the way to a top-10 ranking in five statistical categories, perhaps none more impressive than a gaudy 52 points-per-game (fourth in the FBS, second in the Big Ten). At the helm of the offense is quarterback Wilton Speight, who will make his fifth career start on Saturday. Speight has impressed through the first four games for Michigan, throwing for just over 218 yards per game with nine touchdowns overall. His only interception came on his first throw of the season against Hawaii. While the offense is a balanced attack in overall numbers, Harbaugh hasn’t been afraid to let Speight pass it around: he’s thrown the ball 30 or more times in three of the team’s four games this season.
The first-year starting quarterback has the luxury of several solid, experienced pass-catching options. All American tight end Jake Butt leads the team in receptions and has found the end zone three times this season. The 6’6 senior will look to provide relief for Speight on Saturday, but the help doesn’t stop there. Wide receiver Amara Darboh leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, and All-Big Ten receiver Jehu Chesson possesses a 6’3, 200-ish-pound frame that the Wisconsin secondary has become familiar with (see here, here and here).
All that weaponry through the air and we haven’t even talked about the base of a Jim Harbaugh offense: the running game. While the Wolverines ran for just 158.2 yards per game in 2015, they’ve averaged nearly 230 yards through four games in 2016 while running for touchdowns (15) than any other Big Ten team and averaging 5.4 yards per carry. In terms of yardage, De’Veon Smith leads the way, but three other running backs have also seen 20-plus carries and scored two or more touchdowns on the season.
Adding to the offensive puzzle Wisconsin will need to solve, Michigan has used star Jabrill Peppers sparingly this season out of the backfield. While he hasn’t played much on this side of the ball thus far, his explosiveness is worth noting should he get some snaps this Saturday.
Despite returning four of its five offensive line starters from a year ago, the Michigan ground game has shown inconsistencies. While the Wolverines gashed Penn State and Hawaii for over 300 yards and four-plus touchdowns each, they barely broke four yards per carry against Colorado and didn’t reach three against UCF. Make no mistake: if Michigan can run the ball effectively, it’ll need to do so over and over again.
Which Michigan ground attack will show up in The Big House on Saturday? Justin Wilcox’s defense figures to have a say in that. The Badgers have surrendered 80.5 yards per game, 10th in the nation and first in the Big Ten. While Michigan does boast an experienced offensive line and an impressive lineup of options at running back, the Wolverines have surrendered over five tackles for loss on offense (10th in the Big TEn). The Badgers will certainly look to keep that trend moving on Saturday, but they’ll do so without All-Big Ten linebacker Vince Biegel, who has been ruled out with a foot injury. While a look at rankings and stats through three or four games for some Michigan opponents (see: Colorado) may paint a positive picture for the Wolverines, the Badgers will undoubtedly be the toughest test for the Michigan offense to this point of the season. Look for Wilcox to blitz early and often to try to make Speight prove he can make the throws required to win.
When Wisconsin has the ball:
Let’s get this out of the way: quarterback Alex Hornibrook played really well on the road in last week’s road win against Michigan State. He couldn’t possible do it again, at Michigan, could he? He sure could, but he’ll definitely need help. The Wisconsin defense was the primary Hornibrook sidekick a week ago, forcing four turnovers and scoring six points of its own.
Hornibrook and the defense played so well, in fact, that the vaunted Wisconsin running game didn’t need to make a major impact (122 yards, three per carry). Increased production from running backs Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and the offensive line, especially on first and second downs, would go a long way toward another huge Wisconsin win. The lack of a consistent running attack put Wisconsin in several third-and-long situations against Michigan State and the offense was up to the challenge, converting seven of 16 total third downs. Michigan’s stout defensive front has allowed opponents to convert 12 percent of third-down opportunities, best in the country.
Michigan’s defense boasts several other impressive stat rankings (13th in points allowed, 12th in pass defense and ninth in red-zone defense) and that can be attributed to its talented personnel. Viewers will hear Peppers’s name all over the broadcast on Saturday, and rightfully so. He might be the best football player in the nation, nevermind the Big Ten. The junior linebacker leads the team in tackles for loss and quarterback hurries, while placing second in tackles. Peppers will be everywhere Saturday and the Badgers will need to be aware of him at all times.
A defense doesn’t put up stingy numbers like Michigan on the laurels of one player. The Wolverines boast an extremely strong front that may be on par with Michigan State’s. Their secondary has been strong (best in the Big Ten against the pass), but will be without cornerback Jeremy Clark for the remainder of the season. Given Michigan’s success on third downs, a lot of responsibility will fall on Wisconsin’s Rob Wheelright, Jazz Peavy and Troy Fumagalli.
Special Teams: Jabrill Peppers, heard of him? Yes, the do-it-all junior makes an impact here as well. Peppers has tallied 227 punt-return yards (22.7 per return) with a touchdown on the season. He’s only had two attempts on kickoff returns, but took one of those for 55 yards. Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti and the punt unit will need to keep Peppers and company under control. The success of Michigan’s special teams doesn’t stop there—they’ve blocked three kicks already (two kicks, one punt).
Reserve kicker Andrew Endicott saw mixed results against Michigan State, his first game handling extra points and field goals, hitting a 41-yard field goal but missing an early extra point. He’ll handle both duties again as Rafael Gaglianone was announced out for the season on Thursday.