After winning their second game in a season against an AP top-ten team for the first time since 1962, the Badgers head back to the state of Michigan to face another staunch opponent in the number four Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan is coming off a 49-10 dismantling of Penn State at home and so far has an average margin of victory of over 38 points per game. However, their only real test of the season came September 17 against a very underrated Colorado team. The Buffs challenged Michigan for most of the afternoon until their starting quarterback Sefo Liufau was injured and Michigan pulled away in the second half.
Michigan leads the all time series against Wisconsin 49-14-1, but the Badgers have won four of the last six meetings, including the 2010 48-28 demolition of the Wolverines, where the Badgers threw the ball only once in the second half and famously ran on 31 straight plays to finish the game. Believe it or not, this is the first time Michigan has been favored over the Badgers since 2007. As we all know, Jim Harbaugh arrived on the scene for the 2015 season and drastically changed the culture and competitiveness of the program, so even after two big wins on the season, the Badgers face their toughest test of the year. They are currently an 11-point underdog, the second largest point spread of the season, following only the 13-point spread against LSU.
Here are our five keys to victory for the Badgers:
1. Keep Forcing Turnovers
One of the few improvements Badger fans expected from new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox after taking over for the departed Dave Aranda was his ability to force takeaways. Through four games, the Badgers defense has done a phenomenal job in that department, forcing nine turnovers through the first four games, including four last week against the Spartans. Michigan, meanwhile, has only turned the ball over twice so far this season behind quarterback Wilson Speight. If Wisconsin’s defense can get after the quarterback and continue to be opportunistic with timely takeaways, it would be a huge boost to their chances to win at Michigan Stadium.
2. Establish the Run
It seems intuitive, but despite a year of growing pains on the offensive line last year, and optimism that this year they would be back to their chain-moving ways on the ground, the team has struggled to run the ball. Averaging under four yards per carry, the Badgers haven’t truly be able to dominate on the ground for any of their four games, and have only averaged more than five yards per carry against Akron. Injuries to starter Corey Clement, and backsups Taiwan Deal, and Bradrick Shaw haven’t helped, but this is a program that hangs its hat on running the ball and face an even bigger test this week against a stout Michigan front seven.
3. Red Zone Offense
After really struggling in the red zone to start the year, Alex Hornibrook has breathed life into the offense. The redshirt freshman has showed tremendous poise in the red zone and has limited mistakes. Wisconsin has great weapons this year, both on the outside, and over the middle, making it easier to score if the quarterback is delivering the ball on time. If they can run the ball better, the offense will only continue to improve inside the 20.
4. The Kicking Game
Starting kicker Rafael Gaglianone remains questionable with a back injury so this may be more solid as the week progresses, but as of now, Alex Endicott is scheduled to make his second career start at kicker. After missing an extra point in the second quarter, Endicott calmly hit a 41-yard field goal in the third quarter, extending the Badger lead at the time to 23-6. As evidenced by his role on kickoffs, Endicott has a big leg, but just needs to conquer the mental part of being a starting kicker especially in a hostile environment. It will be tough for the Badgers to win in anything other than a close game, so kicking will be of paramount importance.
5. Contain Jabrill Peppers
I was originally going to add Peppers above and make it about the greater special teams component, but Peppers is that good and deserves his own key to the game. He is a three-way threat, who can impact the game on returns, defense, and has an increasingly important role on offense. He is a modern day Charles Woodson for the Wolverines. Coach Paul Chryst told media Monday that Peppers is the “best player in college football”. Peppers has an eye-popping 9.5 tackles for loss, and is third in then nation in punt return yardage. Peppers will certainly make an impact, but it is very important to limit just how much of an impact he makes.
This Badger team relishes the underdog role and certainly has the tools to upset Michigan on the road, but it will take a monumental effort to beat a team as talented and as well coached as the Wolverines.
Written by Sam Maxwell (@smaxwell713)