Every college football Saturday is exciting as teams look for matchups to exploit in what traditionally is the game within the game for coaches and players alike.
This year we at B5Q will dive into one pivotal matchup to keep an eye on as the Wisconsin Badgers work their way through their non-conference and Big Ten portions of their 2021 football schedule.
While all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, there are normally a few specific matchups that can make or break a game for a particular side. This weekly feature will highlight one of those matchups in greater detail as we preview the upcoming weekend.
This week the Badgers will look to get back on the winning track and score their first win over a ranked opponent since November of 2019, against a hungry Michigan Wolverines team that is the No. 14 ranked team according to the updated AP Poll.
The matchup on Saturday that I am most interested in this week will be the battle between Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan and the Wisconsin offensive line.
The case for Aidan Hutchinson
Last season the Badgers absolutely blew the doors off Michigan, winning 49-11 in Ann Arbor. One of the Wolverine's top players, defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, missed that game after fracturing his leg the week prior against Indiana.
Back for his final season, Hutchinson, a former four-star recruit and son of All-American edge rusher Chris Hutchinson, is already putting together a strong senior season. Through four games he has recorded a sack in each contest and also forced a fumble against Western Michigan. All in all, Aidan Hutchinson has compiled 5.5 sacks and is fifth on the team in tackles. He is playing the best football of his career and is the unquestioned team leader.
While all of Michigan’s games have come at home, and two of the games have come against MAC opponents, he played his best game (2.5 sacks, one quarterback hurry) against Washington offensive tackle Jaxson Kirkland who was highly thought of in NFL circles entering the year. Hutchinson possesses a tireless motor and is athletic coming off the edge.
With Hutchinson back in the lineup this season, the Wolverine defense has been much better. While there are other talented playmakers on Michigan’s defense, he is by far the player to watch in the front seven, and he will be a handful for the Badgers offensive line.
The case for Wisconsin’s offensive line
The Badgers have one of the best offensive line traditions in college football. The standard for success up front and the blueprint is there, but so far this season Joe Rudolph’s group has not lived up to expectations.
Wisconsin has rotated nine different players in their three contests, with right tackle Logan Bruss being the only consistent presence. With a player of Hutchinson’s caliber coming to town, the Badgers offensive line will need to clean things up quickly.
Luckily for Wisconsin, there is talent in the room. However, time is ticking for them to finalize or tighten up their rotation.
In the two games that the Badgers have taken on ranked opponents, Wisconsin has only rushed for 258 yards on 86 combined carries, an average of exactly three yards per carry. Much of the blame for those numbers fall on the inability of Wisconsin to muster even an average passing game this year in those contests, but the line needs to be better going forward given the limitations at quarterback.
That is by no means an easy task with Michigan’s top-5 scoring defense coming to town, but there is room for some optimism. The Wolverines rank No. 60 in rush defense this season and outside of Hutchinson have only managed 1.5 sacks.
Last season the Badgers ran for 341 yards at a 6.7 yards per carry average when these two teams met. Improved play by the Wisconsin offensive line would improve all aspects of the offense, and this is another huge opportunity for this group to get back on track.
Now it is about executing.