When the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers lineup against the No. 12 Michigan Wolverines at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, they will see a team that does a lot of things similar to them. Unfortunately for the Badgers, the opponent is just a little bit better at than them. Here’s what you need to know about Saturday’s opponent, the Michigan Wolverines.
Leader under center
Shea Patterson’s arrival to Ann Arbor signaled a new confidence in the signal-caller position for the Wolverines. Michigan was getting a player who threw for 2,200 yards and 17 touchdowns in just seven games in 2017.
After Patterson was named the starter in the third week of August, all thoughts then turned to Week 1 and a matchup in South Bend, Ind. with Notre Dame.
In his first Michigan start, Patterson had some good moments. He threw for 227 yards while completing two-thirds of his passes. He was especially impressive extending plays and throwing on the run. But, Patterson and the offense lacked a certain lethality converting after the Wolverines’ defense got stops. Also, Michigan’s final drive looked a bit panicked while also being wasteful in terms of time.
Since then, Patterson has improved. This is reflected in his stats since that game. Patterson is in the top 20 nationally in completion percentage and he’s just outside the top 20 in passing efficiency. Beyond stats, he simply looks more confident and composed in the pocket.
The running game
When talking about Michigan’s run game, the conversation starts with Karan Higdon. The senior came just yards away from finishing with a 1,000-yard season a year ago. Higdon is on-pace to comfortably surpass that total this season. Through five games in 2018, he has 582 yards, which is good enough for 20th in the nation and second in the conference in rushing yards.
After rushing for 72 yards against Notre Dame in week one, Higdon has surpassed 100 yards in every game since. He was especially effective in the Wolverines’ comeback victory at Northwestern.
Another part of the Michigan backfield coming into the season was Chris Evans. And, after missing the last three games, he should be back this week, according to the Detroit Free Press. He is a tremendous runner outside of the tackles and he is a true asset in the passing game. The junior rushed for over 600 yards in his freshman and sophomore seasons. He also had 16 receptions last season.
In shades of the Big Ten of the past, the Wolverines have a true fullback; and, he’s good! Ben Mason has five touchdowns in four games this season and seven in nine career games. Also, if you look at highlights of big runs by Higdon or Evans, you’ll probably see Mason in there helping clear those holes.
Although the running game is more productive in terms of scoring, Patterson and his crew of pass-catchers are a capable core of scorers themselves. Patterson also does a good job feeding all the baby birds in the nest. Four players have over 10 receptions and a fifth has nine.
The leader in terms of catches and yards is senior tight end Zach Gentry, who has 20 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown. He seems to be justifying preseason accolades including being named to the Mackey Award watch-list. Another guy on the Mackey list is his teammate, Sean McKeon. McKeon has nine receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown.
The dual leaders at the wide receiver position are the two that are second to Gentry in terms of catches and yards respectively: Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins.
Peoples-Jones is second on the team in catches with 18, but Peoples-Jones leads the team with five touchdown receptions. In addition to catching passes, Peoples-Jones also returns punts, and well, but we’ll get to that a little bit later on.
Collins is second on the team in receiving yards with 265. He also has one touchdown catch on the season. His biggest game of the year came in the Wolverines’ come-from-behind victory at Northwestern. He had six grabs for 73 yards on the day, including a couple crucial grabs that set up scores.
The last known commodity in the Wolverines passing game is senior wide receiver Grant Perry, who has 13 catches for 89 yards.
There is one last intriguing element in Michigan’s passing game and it is a player with just three receptions on the season. But … but, they’re for 80 yards and two touchdowns.
According to MLive.com, true freshman Ronnie Bell didn’t decide to play college football until the fall of his senior year of high school. At that time, he was a college basketball commit. That story is truly fascinating, detailing how Kansas City, Mo.’s best high school football player only had one football offer: Michigan. Anyway, he has catches in the last three games and two of them were touchdowns.
What makes it all go
The gasoline that makes the vehicle that is the Michigan offense run is its offensive line. Besides protecting a top-20 rusher and a top-20 passer in terms of efficiency, Michigan allows the second-fewest sacks-per-game in the conference. Why is Patterson so often afforded the opportunity to extend plays? A certain amount of it is Patterson being slippery, but the majority share is the offensive line maintaining its pass-block deep into the final embers of plays.
Anchoring the Wolverines’ line is Outland Trophy watch-list member, and Hartland Wisconsin native, left guard Ben Bredeson. He was second-team all-Big Ten a season ago. Although Bredeson is the only member of the line with preseason accolades, there is thorough experience all over the line. Michael Onwenu has made 15 total starts over the last two seasons, all but one of those at right guard.
Then, you have right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty who, before starting all six games this year, made seven starts last season. Going through the entirety of the o-line, these same sentiments continue. There aren’t necessarily superstars, but there is plenty of experience. Another aspect of the offensive line that will only help them as the season continues, the same unit has started each game this season.
Defense, defense, defense
Speaking of units, the Michigan defense is an incredible one. In fact, the Wolverines may have the best defense in the country. They’re first nationally in total defense and passing defense. They’re sixth in rushing defense and eleventh in scoring defense. When you watch them play, you can understand why they rank so well. They’re fast, hard-hitting and heavy blitzers. When the opposing quarterback drops back to pass, he is often joined in the pocket shortly by someone wearing Maize and Blue.
Plenty of individual talent
The most talented player on the Wolverines’ defense, Rashan Gary, was rated the ninth-best player in the country to start the season by Sports Illustrated. So far this season, Gary has justified that preseason recognition. In five games, Gary has 18 tackles, 3 1/2 for loss and two sacks. But, he missed last week’s game against Maryland with a shoulder injury. My guess, though, is he will more than likely play. He is listed as questionable.
The man on the opposite side of the defensive line is a tremendous player in his own right. Chase Winovich is currently second on the team in tackles with 35. Winovich is the team-leader in tackles for loss with 10.5 and sacks with three. Before the season, Winovich was named to the Nagurski and Bednarik award watch lists.
In the words of the late Billy Mays, “But wait, there’s more.” The linebacking core for the Wolverines is full of talent. The leading tackler on the team is preseason All-American Devin Bush. He has 40 tackles, five for loss and a couple of sacks. When you watch him, his speed jumps out immediately. He is exciting coming downhill to meet ball carriers or rush the quarterback. He is also effective in coverage and he is a strong tackler in the open field.
Standing next to Bush is another preseason All-American in Khaleke Hudson. He isn’t where he should be statistically, though, because he has had an issue staying on the field. He doesn’t have issues staying healthy. Instead, he’s been ejected twice and, in turn, has missed two first halves due to targeting penalties. In his time so far this season, he has 19 tackles and a sack.
The Michigan secondary, lastly, has several quality players to keep an eye on. The Wolverines have a pair of safeties that are always around the ball in Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus. They’re third and fourth on the team in tackles, respectively. They’ve also combined for 3 1/2 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and three pass break-ups. Not to be outdone, at cornerback, the Wolverines have Lavert Hill who was named to the Nagurski and Thorpe watch lists before the season. So far this season, Hill has eight tackles and five pass break-ups.
The truly special teams
Whether it’s kicking, punting or returning, Michigan is especially good at special teams.
Like many of his teammates, kicker Quinn Nordin came into the season with some preseason accolades. Before the year, Nordin was named to the Lou Groza watch list. To date this season, he has done well in justifying that acknowledgment. He is 8-for-9 on field goals, including a 50-yarder against Nebraska.
Will Hunt comfortably handles the punting duties for the Wolverines. He is averaging 51 yards-per-punt on the season. 13-of-18 punts have reached or exceeded 50 yards and seven punts have been pinned inside the 20-yard line.
As previously eluded to, the best option when kicking or punting to the Wolverines, the best strategy may be to simply kick it through the end zone. Both Ambry Thomas, who is the kick returner, and Peoples-Jones, who returns punts, have touchdowns this season.
Long story short, the Wolverines and the Badgers do similar things. But, Michigan does those things a bit better in general. The Badgers have the advantage when it comes to running the football, but I think I’d take the Wolverines everywhere else. When it comes to the quarterback, defense and special teams, I think the Wolverines have the upper hand.
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