The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (4-0) head to Ann Arbor to face Jim Harbaugh and the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CST, ABC).
After disposing of then-No. 8 Michigan State 30-6 in East Lansing, the Badgers will look to continue their winning ways in a daunting conference schedule. The road to victory against the Wolverines got a little tougher on Thursday, with news of placekicker Rafael Gaglianone being out for the season due to back surgery and a report stating outside linebacker Vince Biegel will be out possibly two to four weeks with a fractured foot.
All against a Michigan offense that has significant weapons in its arsenal and a defense that’s among the nation’s best.
Here are Wisconsin’s keys to the game:
Move the ball on first and second downs
It’s great that redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook completed six of six passes on third downs that were 10 yards or more. It really is. Against a Wolverines defense that is best in the nation in not allowing their opponent to move the chains in that category (12 percent), Wisconsin needs to shorten the field to allow a greater chance.
The good news (at least in the first quarter through four games): Wisconsin has held the ball for 50:27 alone. The Badgers average over 37 minutes per game through the first third of the season, currently third in the nation.
The running game has to provide a spark by moving the ball early on, and the injury report from Thursday did not show Micah Kapoi on there, lending to the assumption that he’ll move back to left guard and Michael Deiter will be back at center. Jon Dietzen is still questionable with a right leg injury, but having Kapoi back should stabilize the rotating line just a bit.
Running backs Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal appear to be full-go against the Wolverines as well.
Wisconsin gained 122 yards against the Spartans last Saturday on three yards per carry. Michigan is 40th in the nation, giving up 122.5 yards per game. If UW runs for 150 to 175—a challenge—it could open up more in the passing game.
Contain Jabrill Peppers
Defense, special teams, some offense—Peppers is a versatile playmaker who has earned many kind words from Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst this week.
“He’s a special football player,” Chryst said on Monday. “There’s two things going when I think of him. One is there aren’t a lot of players that can impact the game in all three phases like he does. Then when you watch him some more, he does a lot of the little things that are kind of reserved for when you specialize in it. That’s what’s impressive, his knowledge and awareness of the game, clearly as an athlete. He’s special, but I think the football part of him—the understanding—that’s what to me really makes him. He’s gotta be the best player in college football right now.”
Let’s start with special teams. Peppers averages 22.7 yards through 10 returns, and already has taken one for a touchdown. He has two kickoff returns, averaging 40 yards per attempt. True freshman Anthony Lotti and the punt coverage unit have already given up one touchdown this season (the only touchdown against Akron).
Defensively, Peppers is second on the team in tackles (33), tied for second in sacks (2.5) and leads the Michigan defense in quarterback hurries (five) and tackles for loss (9.5). Fun stat: Peppers has over 20 percent of the team’s tackles for loss (45).
Wherever he is on the field—in the secondary, at linebacker, as a returner—the Badgers must contain one of college football’s most explosive players. They’ll have to do so without one of their leaders.
Next Man Up 2016, Replacing Vince Biegel Edition
Consider the following:
- During Wisconsin’s first game of the season, sophomore Chris Orr goes down at inside linebacker on LSU’s first offensive play of the game. Former walk-on Ryan Connelly steps in with seven tackles and a critical stop of running back Leonard Fournette on a screen pass in the fourth quarter.
- At the end of the 54-10 victory over Akron, junior cornerback and lead nickel back Natrell Jamerson suffers a leg injury and is ruled out for four to six weeks. Junior Lubern Figaro rises like a phoenix to lock down that third corner spot opposite starters Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal.
- Dietzen and Kapoi have battled injuries throughout the short season, and both were out against Michigan State. Insert former walk-on Brett Connors (sound familiar?) at center, with Deiter swinging to left guard in UW’s 30-6 win.
- Gaglianone is ruled out against the Spartans, so senior Andrew Endicott takes over the placekicking duties. Despite missing one extra point, he converted a 41-yard field goal.
Wisconsin’s defense now will have to make due without its captain and emotional leader in Biegel for at least the Michigan game and probably longer. It’s a substantial loss for a squad playing at such a high level, but there are options.
Redshirt freshman Zack Baun is listed below Biegel on the depth chart, and the former prep quarterback from Brown Deer, Wis., has played significant snaps this season. A report from Badger247’s Evan Flood stated redshirt junior Garret Dooley would get the nod at outside linebacker opposite T.J. Watt.
Though this defense is led by Justin Wilcox now, compared to Dave Aranda’s, it’ll be intriguing to see if Jack Cichy returns to the position he started at during the course of the game, which one could assume would lead to Connelly bouncing back up to a starter’s role opposite T.J. Edwards.
There are pieces to make the game plan fit on Saturday and possibly beyond, but replacing one of the country’s best outside linebackers will be a tall task. After this game, a bye week is much needed before Ohio State.
Don’t allow big plays from Michigan’s passing game
Michigan has a balanced offense that averages about 230 yards rushing and 240 passing per game. Wisconsin has to make the Wolverines one-dimensional, as running backs De’Veon Smith and Chris Evans have combined for 472 yards at almost seven yards per carry.
Wisconsin’s rush defense has been impressive so far, allowing only 80.5 yards per game (10th in the nation). The Badgers’ front seven, even without Biegel, should contain the rushing attack to a decent extent.
That leaves the matchup of the game: Michigan’s passing game against Wisconsin’s secondary. The Wolverines have impressive targets at Wilton Speight’s disposal in Amara Darboh (17 receptions, 248 yards, four touchdowns), Jehu Chesson (eight, 145), and Jake Butt (19, 234, three).
Shelton and Tindal have showed their high confidence early this season, combining for three interceptions and 10 pass break-ups against LSU, Akron and Michigan State receivers. Figaro has stepped up and been pretty productive in two games as the nickel back in replacing Jamerson.
The key matchup is the Badgers’ pass defense vs. Butt, in all likelihood the best tight end they’ll face this year. Wisconsin safeties Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon are both listed as 5’10, while Butt is 6’6. How they slow down the big target could decide the game.