The No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (5-0, 2-0) defeated the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (4-1, 1-1) 14-7 in Michigan Stadium on Saturday in a game that was never going to feature much scoring, but it could have featured more with slightly better quarterback play.
This game was controlled by two iron-fisted defensive lines, but Michigan’s secondary proved to be the ultimate difference in this game, picking off three Badger passes and keeping throwing windows too tight for Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook to make things work.
Michigan had lost to 12 consecutive Top 10 opponents, dating back to 2008. Coincidentally, that last win came to a No. 9 Wisconsin team that ultimately finished the season with a 7-6 record. So yeah, it took Jim Harbaugh two seasons to do what Rich Rodriguez did in one. (Okay, that one was a bit much.)
This game went pretty much as expected, with Michigan’s defense stifling the Wisconsin offense, and the Wolverine offense doing just well enough to put 14 points on the board. They only won by a touchdown, but in this game that was pretty much a two-score margin.
When Michigan Was On Offense
I was impressed by Michigan’s ability to run the ball in this game. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t supposed to be, but they managed 130 yards on 44 carries (3.0 ypc), which was a season-high in yardage given up by the Wisconsin defense. They actually held LSU and Leonard Fournette to 126 yards. Well, they held Fournette to 138 yards and everyone else to -12 yards.
De’Veon Smith rushed for 66 yards on 17 carries (3.9 ypc) and got a lift from Ty Isaac (8-48) throughout the game. Chris Evans came in for some bursts as well. Three yards per carry isn’t impressive, but it’s about a yard better than I expected Michigan to do.
Karan Higdon did not carry the ball at all. You can always tell who a coach trusts by watching who carries the ball in a game that could be lost on one single play. Higdon was good last week, but he obviously still has some growing to do.
The passing game was more up than down, but there were some inconsistencies, which have yet to cost this team a win as it did last year. Wilton Speight completed 20-of-32 passes for 219 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Badgers dropped at least two interceptions and if I go back through my notes, I’d probably find a third one as well.
Speight was sacked four times and pressured pretty regularly, which had something to do with a few of his more dangerous throws. He can get pretty erratic if he knows pressure is a possibility. Amara Darboh led the Wolverines with six receptions for 87 yards, including the game-winning 46-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
Slot receiver Grant Perry continues to emerge as a difficult man to keep up with. He only had two catches for 26 yards, but Speight did throw it his way three other times unsuccessfully. Tight end Jake Butt also caught three passes for 31 yards.
The Wolverines were just 3-of-15 on third downs and converted just 1-for-11 when Speight dropped back to pass. He was sacked three times on those drop backs.
Obviously, this was not a great day for the Michigan pass protection. For one, starting left tackle Grant Newsome left the game with a season-ending knee injury, which is a terrible loss. They then brought in sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty, and he had a few issues, including a holding penalty. It will be interesting to see if they stick with Bushell-Beatty or go to somebody like center Mason Cole, who played left tackle last year.
Right tackle Erik Magnuson also had trouble dealing with Wisconsin’s 3-4 edge rushers. Left guard Ben Braden was also nabbed with a holding call. This was a very tough matchup for Michigan and Wisconsin gave them quite a bit of trouble up front with their pass rush.
Linebacker Jabrill Peppers also spent some time at wildcat running the read option, but the defender that he was reading was always forcing him to hand the ball off. Peppers was used as a decoy as well. I’d rather see him with the ball in his hands than being a decoy for a Shane Morris run like we saw in this game. That’s like asking Paul McCartney to open for One Direction.
When Michigan Was On Defense
After seeing what Michigan did to Wisconsin’s offense and what Ohio State did to Rutgers’ offense, I have no single idea how the Scarlet Knights are going to score next week on Michigan’s defense. I can’t even come up with some random happening that could bring it about. Maybe an act of Congress? But even then, it’s doubtful that they could act in time.
Wisconsin was held to 71 yards rushing on 28 carries (2.5 ypc), which is actually the sixth time in their last 20 outings they were held to fewer than 100 yards rushing. The 71 yards is the same number that the Badgers rushed for against Ohio State in the 2014 B1G Championship Game. That Wisconsin team rushed for 581 yards against Nebraska and 400 yards against Auburn. This Wisconsin team managed 187 yards rushing against Georgia State.
This was always one of the games that people – me included – pointed to when it came to finding out how well Jabrill Peppers would hold up at linebacker. Considering the Badgers only managed 71 yards rushing, everybody held up pretty well.
Peppers, however, managed just one tackle on a running play – which happened on the first drive of the game, while fellow linebackers Mike McCray and Ben Gedeon each had five. And no, it wasn’t because he was lined up outside – he was in the box on 90% of Wisconsin’s running plays. And no, it wasn’t because they ran away from him. It was because he had trouble getting off of Wisconsin’s blocks, be it linemen, fullbacks, or tight ends.
Wisconsin was a difficult assignment for him, but it was his first real experience with a mauling ground game. He’ll be better for it and will learn from it, and he needs to because he’ll see it again.
In fairness to Peppers, there weren’t a lot of tackles to go around and Wisconsin only ran 53 offensive play. He likely would have had more tackles if the Badgers could have sustained any drives.
As impressive as the Wolverines were when it came to stopping the run, they were even better against the pass. Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook completed just 9-of-25 passes for 88 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was sacked twice.
There were about three opportunities to change the momentum of this game with an accurate throw to an open receiver, but Hornibrook just wasn’t able to connect. He missed at least one easy touchdown on an overthrow. A slightly-above-average day from a quarterback could have put 21 points on the board in this game. Hornibrook wasn’t that guy.
Cornerback Channing Stribling intercepted two passes and dropped a third. He will receive some kind of All-B1G recognition this season. He is playing very, very well. Jourdan Lewis also had an interception, but he wasn’t even fundamentally sound enough to use two hands. Is this possibly a sign of poor coaching? (Relax, that’s a joke, super serious Michigan fan.)
If you would like to throw the ball against this defense, I would recommend getting middle linebacker Ben Gedeon matched up in pass coverage. He has trouble matching speeds to the sideline. Wisconsin’s lone score came on a wheel route to his man in the third quarter.
Also, I would recommend that your receivers actually hold on to the ball. If the Badger receivers had done that in this game, things would have been a little more interesting.
The difference in this game was a lot like Michigan State’s win last year at Ohio State – one team completed a deep ball and the other didn’t. Unlike that game, however, if you replay this game 10 times, Michigan wins at least eight of them. They’re just the better team.
The Michigan Special Teams
This was as poor a performance by an entire special teams unit as you are ever going to see. There were three penalties committed on special teams, including two false starts on punts. Kicker Kenny Allen missed field goal attempts of 31 yards and 43 yards. He has made just one of his last five field goal attempts, and is just 4-of-8 this season. Sophomore Ryan Tice then came on and missed a 40-yarder. The kicking job is now up for grabs this week.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that against a team with a very good defense, the opposing offense won’t have to score a lot to stay in the game for all four quarters. Wisconsin couldn’t do anything on offense, but because the Wolverines weren’t putting points on the board, the Badgers stayed in it.
Wisconsin didn’t have any drives of 40 yards, and had just two over 30 yards. Michigan, meanwhile, had five drives of at least 40 yards. The Wolverines need to do a much better job of capitalizing on their field position. Michigan scored on just one of their three red zone visits.
It also means that the Wolverine defense doesn’t need much statistical contribution from Jabrill Peppers to still completely dominate an opponent. We wanted to know how the Michigan defense would fare against a power running team, and now we have a bit of an idea. This Badger team isn’t a great running team, but they are methodical. As it turns out, that suits the Wolverines just fine.
The Road to The Game
Michigan 63 – Hawaii 3
Michigan 51 – UCF 14
Michigan 45 – Colorado 28
Michigan 49 – Penn State 10
Michigan 14 – Wisconsin 7
Michigan at Rutgers
Michigan vs. Illinois
Michigan at Michigan State
Michigan vs. Maryland
Michigan at Iowa
Michigan vs. Indiana
Michigan at Ohio State