7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Wisconsin -4.5, Over/Under: 53.5
With COVID ravaging the College Football landscape this weekend, many significant matchups have been either postponed or canceled altogether, though one such contest that hasn’t is the (13) Wisconsin Badgers at the Michigan Wolverines, from Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Speaking of the effects of COVID, there is no team in the country that is become more acquainted with the virus of late than Wisconsin (1-0, 1-0 in Big Ten), who haven’t played since October 23rd due to a rash of positive tests; in total there were THIRTY members of the team (17 players/13 staff) that were flagged for a positive test, and due to the safety protocols mandated by the Big Ten upon their delayed return to action, the Badgers failed to meet the requisite positional thresholds for scholarship athletes in each of the last two weeks. Imagine waiting roughly two months to return to the gridiron only to be sidelined as a whole for two weeks, which is precisely the reality facing Head Coach, Paul Chryst, who was just one of the many positive cases in Madison during that period of time. The 54-year old has reportedly been asymptomatic, but given the staggering number of absences from both his staff and roster it’s a legitimate question as to how prepared they’re going to be in this trip to the Big House, a venue that they haven’t enjoyed success in since 2010.
Of course the suspension in football activities didn’t just rob Wisconsin of practice and preparation time, but it also sapped any momentum that they managed to build from their strong showing in the Season Opener, a 45-7 thumping of Illinois, which must feel like ages ago. At that time, the Badgers had other matters weighing on their minds apart from COVID, for there were legitimate concerns over who was going to start at the sport’s most important position, Quarterback. Before the pandemic ever robbed them of games on the schedule, Senior Quarterback, Jack Coan (69.6%, 2,727 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 18 TD, 5 INT, 151.8 RATE in 2019), suffered a broken right foot in practice only a few weeks before the Opener, leaving Chryst very little time to get his deputy, Graham Mertz (95.2%, 248 YDS, 11.8 Y/A, 5 TD, 0 INT, 273.0 RATE), ready for action. Coan started all fourteen games in 2019, and was expected to serve as the connective tissue from last year’s Offense to this season’s, a role made all the more significant when you consider what that unit had lost; Wisconsin parted ways with prolific Tailback, Jonathan Taylor, who ended his career in Madison as the Big Ten’s second all-time leading rusher (6,174), churning out 2,003 yards and twenty-one touchdowns last Fall, along with Wideout, Quintez Cephus, who led the team in catches (59), receiving yards (901), and touchdown receptions (7). Granted, given their history of annual success in the Backfield, Taylor’s departure wasn’t overly concerning and neither was that of Cephus, but Coan was a different matter altogether, particularly because it wasn’t planned. However, there was plenty of intrigue in Mertz, who arrived at the program as an outlier in comparison to the typical profile of a Wisconsin Quarterback. Generally, this position is held by game managers, and because of that they are rarely fortunate enough to land a prized recruit, though this kid has broken that mold, owning the distinction of being their first signal-caller ranked within the Top-250 recruits in 2019. He saw action in just two games last year as a True Freshman before deciding to Redshirt, completing all but one of his ten pass attempts for seventy-three yards. And it’s with that said that the stage was set at Camp Randall Stadium where the Frosh would go on to exceed expectations in what could only be described as the most ideal of debuts. Simply put, Mertz was everything that the faithful in Madison could have hoped for in his first start, completing a surgeon-like 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and FIVE touchdowns. He exhibited firm control of the Offense, and immediately developed a strong rapport with Junior Tight End, Jake Ferguson (7 REC, 72 YDS, 10.3 Y/R, 3 TD), connecting on seven catches for seventy-two yards and three touchdowns, as the hosts were never truly threatened by the Illini, running off thirty-one unanswered points to end the affair. Unfortunately, the good times wouldn’t last for only a few days later, Mertz was diagnosed with COVID, the first of many for the team, and as a result his availability for tonight’s trip to Ann Arbor is very much up in the air. Chryst lamented the fact that his Quarterback needed ample practice time to get ready for this showdown at the Big House, and at this point it’s anyone’s guess if he’s met that criteria. If he’s unable to make the start, then those duties will likely all on the shoulders of Danny Vanden Boom, a Junior who is literally the only other healthy option for Chryst.
When we last saw Wisconsin, they thoroughly hammered Illinois in that aforementioned 45-7 drubbing, and while we touched upon the scintillating debut of their young Quarterback, let’s shine a light on the rest of the team. As expected, the Badgers continued to enjoy success on the ground even without the presence of Taylor, rushing for 182 yards on fifty-four carries, with Chryst utilizing a committee-like approach in the Backfield, as Tailbacks, Garrett Groshek (13 CAR, 70 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 0 TD), Nakia Watson (19 CAR, 62 YDS, 3.3 Y/A, 0 TD), and Isaac Guerendo (11 CAR, 36 YDS, 3.3 Y/A, 0 TD), each made an impact with the football in hand. While Ferguson saw the majority o the attention in the passing game, Senior Receiver, Danny Davis (2 REC, 72 YDS, 36.0 Y/R, 1 TD), was the big play threat, with fifty-three of his seventy yards coming on a touchdown from Mertz. In the end, it was typical Wisconsin Offense, totaling 430 yards on twenty-three first downs, converting a solid 8-of-14 third downs, and committing just three penalties for a loss of fifteen yards. The only blemish on the night was a fumble from Ferguson that the visitors managed to return thirty-nine yards for their only score of the affair. The Defense pitched a shutout, relegating the Illini to a scant 218 total yards on a mere eight first downs, yielding 2-of-10 on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth, while forcing a pair of turnovers to boot. It was a very rough day for Illinois Quarterback, Brandon Peters, who completed a miserable 8-of-19 passes for eighty-seven yards before eventually taking a seat on the bench.
Meanwhile, unlike their opponent tonight Michigan (1-2, 1-2 in Big Ten) has indeed managed to play in the past two weeks, though they haven’t played very well by all accounts. The criticism of Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh, has once again become louder, as his team has fallen out of the rankings for the first time since 2017. Of course, those critics were rather quiet following the Wolverines’ return to play three weeks ago, as they stormed into TCF Bank Stadium and manhandled (21) Minnesota, the reigning West Division Champion, in a 49-24 victory that really wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. On that day, the Offense was solid in churning out a balanced 478 total yards and committing zero turnovers, while the Defense relegated one of the most explosive attacks in the country to 326 total yards and logging a pair of takeaways. It was the kind of performance that creates a wealth of buzz around a young team that came into 2020 as a legitimate question mark; the roster was littered by inexperienced underclassmen at multiple positions, and given the abridged schedule it was deemed unrealistic that they would be able to meet the lofty expectations associated with the program from year to year. However, as great as that victory must have felt, what would follow would bring with it another feeling altogether…
Heading into 2020 it felt like this was going to be a rebuilding season for Michigan, who had to replace a slew of key players on both sides of the football, including ten players who were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. Four starters along the Offensive Line heard their name called on that night, along with three Linebackers, and star Receiver, Donovan Peoples-Jones. Starting Quarterback, Shea Patterson, graduated as well, leaving Harbaugh with a difficult task under normal circumstances, but as we’ve come to realize, 2020 has been anything but normal. On one hand, the Offense looks ahead of schedule, with Junior Quarterback, Joe Milton (60.7%, 869 YDS, 8.1 Y/A, 4 TD, 2 INT, 137.6 RATE) finally strutting his stuff after patiently biding his time over the past two years, piloting an attack that has averaged 31.3 points per game (47th Overall) on 429.0 total yards, including 289.7 yards through the air and another 139.3 yards on the ground. At 6-5, 243 lbs, Milton has the size, arm strength, and athleticism that his predecessor lacked, and given the turnover along the Offensive Line, his mobility has certainly made him a welcome addition, rushing for 102 yards and a score on twenty-five carries. Quarterback play has been a sticking point during Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor, and there is reason to believe that this kid will put an end to the string of unimpressive signal-callers that have passed through the doors of the Big House in recent years. On the other hand, the Defense has been and continues to be very much a work in progress. Last season, the Wolverines were one of the better units in the country, allowing 20.7 points per game (25th Overall) on 308.2 total yards, including 185.5 yards against the pass and another 122.7 yards versus the run. Fast forward to 2020 and it’s been a completely different story, as this young group has been through a baptism by fire over the past few weeks; in back-to-back defeats at the hands of bitter rival, Michigan State (27-24), and most recently Indiana (38-21), they were torched for a combined 909 total yards, with the Pass Defense an eye sore in particular. In those two outings, their young Secondary relinquished 665 yards and six touchdowns, with the unit as a whole failing to register a single takeaway, which is really saying something when you consider that the Spartans have been one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country, totaling a whopping ten in the other two games alone. Breakdowns in coverage have played a huge role in their struggles, with those two opponents averaging a healthy 14.1 yards per completion. At this point, the only thing that can remedy the situation is more playing time, which is something that Harbaugh has consistently lamented over the past week. Interestingly enough, their struggles in coverage have persisted despite routinely solid play in the trenches, where they’ve racked up twelve tackles for loss and five sacks, with Senior Defensive End, Kwity Paye (12 TKL, 4 TFL, 2.0 SK), has been a force logging a pair of sacks and four tackles for loss.
When we last saw Michigan, they were embarrassed on the road at an upstart Indiana team, who managed to beat them for the first time in thirty-three years ending a 24-game losing streak in the series. The faithful in Ann Arbor hope that this showing will in fact prove to be the nadir for this year’s team, for it would be hard to imagine it getting much worse. After trading touchdown drives midway through the First Quarter, the Hoosiers put their collective foot on the gas as they ran off seventeen unanswered points to end the First Half, which would be all the space they would need to see the visitors off the field. At the end of the day, the statistical disparity was rather ridiculous as the hosts held commanding advantages across the board, most notably in total yards (460-357), first downs (28-17), takeaways (2-0), and penalties (4/50-8/89). However, the most damning figure of all was the scant THIRTEEN rushing yards by the Wolverines on eighteen carries, which is by far and away the fewest that Harbaugh’s side has produced since he returned to his Alma Mata in 2015. It was also a rough day for Milton, who despite throwing for 344 yards and three touchdowns, completed just 18-of-34 passes and was also picked off twice and sacked on three occasions. Defensively, the Secondary was SHREDDED to the tune of 342 yards and three touchdowns on 30-of-50 passing, with Indiana stringing together drive after drive, converting on 9-of-18 third downs. Michigan will have to pick themselves off the mat quickly for Wisconsin presents a different challenge altogether; the Badgers have won four of the last six meetings between the schools, including last year’s 35-14 thumping at camp Randall Stadium, which saw the hosts start the game on a 35-0 run and finish it with a ridiculous 359 rushing yards and five touchdowns on fifty-seven carries.