The season has not unfolded quite as expected for the Wisconsin Badgers (1-0 overall, 1-0 B1G) due to complications with COVID-19, but after two weeks off, another game week is finally here!
Each week leading into Saturday we scout out how the upcoming opponent has fared and this week, that team is the Michigan Wolverines.
Results thus far:
Michigan is currently 1-2 overall (1-2 B1G) through three contests.
Just this week news broke that top defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson fractured his right leg against Indiana and will miss the remainder of the season for Michigan. That is huge news for the front seven of the Wolverines, especially with Jim Harbaugh’s other top pass rusher Kwity Paye currently battling an injury as well. It is unknown the current injury status of Paye, who did not play during most of the fourth quarter last week after an injury. If he is also unable to go, Michigan will be breaking in two new starters along the defensive line.
From the coach:
Things are not all rosy in Ann Arbor, as questions surrounding head coach Jim Harbaugh’s contract and job security were major talking points during his Monday presser according to our Michigan friends at Maize and Brew:
On how long he intends to stay at Michigan...
“We’ve been doing this for six years, that’s my point,” he said. “I’m not answering that question. Our focus is to win the next game. You can write whatever article you want, because I know that that’s what has been happening for the last five and a half, six years since I got here.”
::insert eyes wandering gif::
Status of the offense:
The Michigan offense came out of the gates with a flurry of 49 points against a struggling Minnesota defense in the opener, creating a ton of optimism that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis had turned a corner in year two. That has quickly faded though, as the Wolverines have been unable to eclipse that mark in the past two games — both of which were losses — combined.
First year starting quarterback Joe Milton has a tremendous amount of talent in his 6-foot-5 and 243 pound frame, but the offense has sputtered at times under his watch. Ranked as the No. 42 scoring offense in the country on a per game basis, Michigan has relied on the right arm of Milton frequently this year. This trend has been especially true the past two games where he has attempted 51 and 34 passes respectively. Milton has thrown for over 300 yards in back-to-back contests, but has only thrown three touchdowns compared to two interceptions. The Wolverines seem to play much better when they are able to run the ball with some consistency.
At running back Michigan has four ball carriers that they distribute the carries around to. Junior Hassan Haskins has accounted for the most yards (188), but quarterback Joe Milton has rushed the most times on the team (25). Younger backs Zach Charbonnet and Blake Corum came to Ann Arbor with a lot of fanfare as four-star, top-150 prospects, but neither player has exceeded 15 carriers this season despite Charbonnet hitting on a 70-yard rushing touchdown in the opener. Senior running back Chris Evans has gotten his fair share of opportunities as well in the backfield. Michigan has the talent at running back to be better on the ground, but so far this year are only averaging 140 yards per game as a team, good for No. 80 in the country.
Part of the blame for Michigan’s struggles in the running game the past two games can be attributed to the offensive line. Let’s not forget that the Wolverines lost four players to the NFL Draft last year, and so far the offensive line has not been nearly as productive as their predecessors. Redshirt sophomore Jalen Mayfield is a future pro at right tackle, and is the lone returning starter along the line, but as a whole the group has been fairly up and down.
On the outside, Ronnie Bell has proven to be the most reliable receiving target for the offense. The junior out of Kansas City had a big game against Indiana with 149 yards, and is the leader of the room. Youngsters Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson have shown flashes of potential as well this year, while slot receiver Giles Jackson has not been able to do much with the second most receptions behind Bell.
Rounding out the offensive artillery, tight end Erick All has really struggled with drops this year despite having a lot of promise as a playmaker. Ben Mason is the newest fullback of note for the team, and he has been a solid lead blocker for the team. Fans may remember him from last year, where he fumbled against the Badgers in the red zone.
Status of the defense:
Michigan’s primary struggles this year have come on the defensive side of the ball.
The Wolverines have managed five sacks this season up front, but all five of them came in the first game against Minnesota. The loss of Aidan Hutchinson for the season and the injury uncertainty for leading sack artist Kwity Paye make this trend all the more alarming. The Michigan front seven was out muscled by Michigan State, and outplayed by Indiana last weekend as well.
At linebacker Michael Barrett, Josh Ross, and Cam McGrone are three of the top-four leading tacklers on the entire defense, each recording at least 19 tackles on the season. Overall, the front seven has not been particularly great at creating pressure on the quarterback, but have not been terrible against the run. Through three games the defense has allowed just over 124 yards rushing per game, ranking them in the top-40 of FBS in the category. Considering the fact that the defense as a unit is allowing nearly 30 points per game, the front seven seems to be doing their part, at least in run defense.
The larger, more pressing, concern for Michigan this season has been the secondary. The opt out of Ambry Thomas has proven to be a huge loss, as the Wolverines have struggled mightily at cornerback. Opposing quarterbacks have averaged a passer rating of 140, and 287 yards through the air on a per game basis, the latter statistic sitting them at No. 111 in the country.
Part of the struggles can definitely be attributed to a lack of pass rush, but junior starting cornerbacks Vincent Gray and Gemon Green have been unable to shake penalties and big plays all season long. Safeties Dax Hill and Brad Hawkins have done some nice things from time to time behind them, but as a whole the secondary has been a huge liability for the Wolverines.
Michigan has now lost four of their last five games dating back to last season. Fans are beginning to become restless in Ann Arbor with the downward trend in play of late, making this game all the more important for Wisconsin. The Badgers have not won there since 2010, and this appears to be the best opportunity to snag a win from the B1G East traditional power.