12:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Wisconsin -7.5, Over/Under: 40
A key Big Ten Battle highlights the penultimate week of the College Football Regular Season, as the Tenty-Fourth-Ranked Michigan Wolverines travel to Camp Randall Stadium to face the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers, whom are fresh off of ascending to Fifth in the College Football Playoff Rankings. With the campaign nearly in the books, it’s safe to say that this isn’t how Michigan (8-2, 5-2 in Big Ten) envisioned things would have shaped up, tied for Second Place in the Big Ten East Division, though on the short end of every tiebreaker for the right to play Wisconsin once more in the Conference Championship Game. After a solid 4-0 start, disaster struck in the form of Starting Quarterback Wilton Speight (54.3%, 145.3 Y/G, 7.2 Y/A, 3 TD, 2 INT) fracturing multiple vertebrae in his back in a 28-10 victory at Purdue, which would prove to have major repercussions for the Offense, which has struggled mightily for a three-week span that featured losses to the likes of Michigan State (14-10) and Penn State (42-13). Since dropping two out of three outings, Jim Harbaugh’s charges have rallied to win three straight against relatively weaker competition, disposing of Rutgers (35-14), Minnesota (33-10), and Maryland (34-10) each with relative ease, despite instability under Center. Senior Quarterback John O’Korn (55.2%, 123.7 Y/G, 6.4 Y/A, 1 TD, 5 INT) initially replaced Speight, but performed so poorly that Harbaugh eventually pulled him early in the meeting with Rutgers, and gave Brandon Peters his first look of the season. With just about three full games under his belt, it appears that the Sophomore has clearly earned the Head Coach’s confidence; the major difference between Peters and O’Korn has been efficiency, with the former completing a stellar 60.9% of his Attempts in comparison to the latter’s 55.2%, while the Underclassman has tossed Four Touchdowns without an Interception, with the Fifth-Year Veteran throwing Five Interceptions to just one Touchdown. Granted, O’Korn faced far more daunting competition than his understudy has, but we’re about to see just what Peters is made of today and the following week as the Wolverines welcome the hated Ohio State Buckeyes to Ann Arbor. If the last two contests are of any indication, then the Gameplan is likely to be grounded (literally); Michigan has ran the ball fifty-one, thirty-seven, and thirty-eight times in the last three weeks, racking up an impressive total of 865 Yards in the process, while Peters has only had to throw a miniscule Fifty-One Passes, or in other words, exactly seventeen per game. The Backfield has been a proverbial battering ram featuring the triumvirate of Karan Higdon (129 CAR, 854 YDS, 10 TD), Chris Evans (104 CAR, 569 YDS, 6 TD), and Ty Isaac (88 CAR, 548 YDS, 2 TD), who have collectively powered a bludgeoning Rushing Attack that has averaged 207.8 Yards on 42.7 Carries per Game. It’s imperative that Peters and Co. refrain from negative plays early in their sets, for if the Down and Distance is reasonable, then the Backfield will likely be able to move the chains and make things easier on not just the Passing Game, but the Defense as well. Since getting embarrassed at Penn State (506 Total Yards Allowed), this group has rebounded well, though there were some clear cracks in their armor that were exploited by Maryland in last weekend’s affair. The Terrapins found a lot of room to run on the Wolverines, gashing them for 180 Yards on Thirty-Two Carries, but saw a pair of promising Drives nullified by Turnovers, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game. Michigan has been typically very stout in the trenches, with their Defensive Front snuffing out the run on most occasions, limiting the opposition to just 110.3 Yards on 3.3 Yards per Carry thus far. We’re sure Harbaugh will keep this unit on high alert as they travel to Madison, where Wisconsin’s vaunted ground game is perennially one of the very best in the country. When these teams met a year ago, a 14-7 defensive slugfest in the Big House, the hosts won the game largely on their ability to shut down the Badgers Rushing Attack, relegating them to a scant Seventy-One Yards on Twenty-Eight Carries, both of which represented season-lows for the visiting side.
Meanwhile, thanks to a wild weekend of College Football that saw a number of teams ranked in the top half of the Top-Ten fall in defeat, Wisconsin (10- 7-0 in Big Ten) stands to gain from their misfortune, climbing to Fifth in the CFP Rankings after weeks of being overlooked by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Then again, overlooked is a bit disingenuous, folks, for the main reason that Badgers have been largely ignored by those who decide such things was their relatively weak schedule, and the fact that they likely wouldn’t play any truly stiff competition until their inevitable trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. Compounding matters for Paul Chryst and his charges, is the fact that the Big Ten as a conference has gone by the wayside in this particular term, with even the perennial powerhouses such as Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State having each sustained at least two losses thus far, meaning that it’s going to take a quite a bit for any of them to earn a place in that First Four. Furthermore, any win over whomever they meet in the Conference Title Game will be devalued due to the respective resumes of those teams. And that’s precisely how an undefeated team from a Major Conference can go twelve weeks into a season and still be written off as if they were an also-ran. Coaches always harp on the fact that their troops can only play the opponents on their schedule, which is a shame for the Badgers, whose opposition thus far has had a collective Win Percentage of just .454, with only three of those teams even owning a winning record, and that’s even worse than it sounds when the likes of Florida Atlantic (7-3) and Northwestern (7-3) are the best of that bunch. Then again, timing has a lot to do when it comes to evaluating the strength of these wins, which was the case last weekend, when Wisconsin absolutely clobbered Iowa a week after the Hawkeyes handed Urban Meyer and Ohio State their worst defeat since the skipper arrived in Columbus (55-24). After the visitors returned an Interception Forty-Three Yards for a Touchdown to open the contest, the home side slowly went about their business scoring all but seven of the game’s next Forty-Five Points en route to a comfortable 38-14 victory. Honestly, folks, this one wasn’t even as close as the score would suggest; the Badgers outgained the visiting side 382-66, with the Hawkeyes’ only Points coming off of a pair of Interception Returns. Hell, if it wasn’t for Four Turnovers, they’d have probably scored Fifty Points with ease. As they typically do, Chryst’s charges pummeled their opponent into a pulp via the run, rushing for 247 Yards and a pair of scores on Forty-Nine Carries, led by Jonathan Taylor’s 157 Yards on Twenty-Nine Attempts, which helped make up for a bad day from Quarterback Alex Hornibrook (64.1%, 186.3 Y/G, 9.0 Y/A, 17 TD, 12 INT), who tossed Three Interceptions in the win. Taylor though, a Freshman out of New Jersey, looks like yet another star in the Badgers’ long line of Tailbacks, rushing for 1,525 Yards and 12 Touchdowns on 219 Carries, passing the 100-Yard Threshold in seven of his ten outings. However, keep an eye on the big guys in the trenches, for Wisconsin will likely be without Starting Center Tyler Biadasz, who suffered an injury to his left leg on a Screen Play to Taylor shorty before Halftime in the win over Iowa on Saturday. In fact, the Injury Bug has been spreading throughout the lockerroom in Madison, as the Defense could be without both Starting Safety D’Cota Dixon (Leg) and Linebacker Chris Orr (Leg) as well, which would be a blow for a unit that has been excellent thus far, allowing a mere 13.4 Points per Game (3rd Overall). With that said, today’s meeting with the Wolverines is an opportunity to exploit, for not only will a win end a three-game losing streak in the series with Michigan, but also grant these guys their first victory over a ranked opponent, which should do nothing but elevate them in the eyes of the CFP Selection Committee before their inevitable meeting with whomever emerges from the Big Ten East Division. Furthermore, Chryst has to like his side’s chances, for Wisconsin hasn’t lost at Camp Randall Stadium in this series since 2001, winning three consecutive meetings in that span.