Michigan’s 14-7 victory over Wisconsin at The Big House in October of 2016 felt like a good old fashioned Big Ten slugfest. The Wolverines proved to be the tougher team that day, and found a way to come out on top.
In the 2017 chapter of the series, the Badgers enacted revenge, dominating the second half to pull away and win, 24-10.
Michigan faced plenty of question marks in 2018, coming off an 8-5 season. The Wolverines lost their opener at Notre Dame, and didn’t play another red-letter opponent until No. 15 Wisconsin came to town in week seven for a primetime matchup.
More than 20 former Michigan offensive linemen served as team captains, and witnessed the Wolverines, who rushed for 320 yards, take it to the Badgers for 60 minutes in a 38-13 rout.
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There were concerns about Michigan’s toughness entering the 2018 meeting with the Badgers, but those were answered in a hurry.
Michigan, which finished the 2018 campaign with a 10-3 record, went on to win at No. 24 Michigan State the following week, before taking care of business at home against No. 14 Penn State the ensuing game (42-7) in a run dubbed ‘The Revenge Tour’ by defensive end Chase Winovich.
The Maize and Blue fell to Ohio State in a year-end embarrassment, 62-39, despite being favored to win in Columbus. Their cornerbacks couldn’t hang with the Buckeyes’ speedy wide receivers, former defensive coordinator Don Brown‘s scheme — which featured tons of man-to-man coverage and blitzes — wasn’t equipped to stop OSU’s crossing routes and the Michigan offense didn’t have the firepower to win a shootout.
The struggles against Ohio State have been well documented, with the Wolverines having now lost 16 of 17 to the Buckeyes. OSU’s recruiting — especially at the skill positions — is at ‘football factory’ level.
It’s almost expected at this point that teams like Michigan and Wisconsin won’t have the Jimmys and Joes to compete with the likes of Ohio State (and Clemson and Alabama) on a year-in, year-out basis — understandable, to a degree. Steal a game here or there? Sure, that can and should happen. But come out on top half of the time? Nope, not in this era.
While the Wolverines haven’t had the skill position players to keep up with Ohio State, they should have the athletes to prevent from getting physically dominated by the Wisconsins of the world, something that began happening in 2019.
The Badgers jammed the ball right down Michigan’s throat in Madison, and the Wolverines had no answer in a 35-14 loss in which they gave up an unacceptable 359 yards on the ground. In a return game at The Big House in 2020, Michigan, which trailed 28-0 at halftime, hardly showed up, losing 49-11 and giving up a whopping 348 rushing yards.
Wisconsin likely didn’t have to throw the ball in either meeting, and still would’ve beaten Michigan, easily. Both years, Wisconsin games turned into Wisconsin ‘debacles.’
“I look at the defense, and the thing that I wonder about is that they struggled against an Ohio State offense which was big on speed and tempo and big plays,” ESPN.com national analyst Adam Rittenberg said in an interview with TheWolverine.com. “But they also struggled the last two years against a Wisconsin offense that just beats you up at the line of scrimmage.
“That’s what’s a little unsettling if I’m a Michigan fan. Ultimately, I need to be able to run with Ohio State. You saw in the Ohio State games in ‘18 and ‘19 that they couldn’t run with Ohio State, but then they also got beat up by Wisconsin. So what has to get fixed from a scheme, a recruiting, strength program … What is it?”
Those weren’t world-beating Wisconsin teams, either. The Badgers finished No. 11 in the country and won the Big Ten West in 2019, but they went 4-3 last season and were unranked to conclude the year.
“Michigan shouldn’t be getting humiliated and overwhelmed by Wisconsin in back-to-back years like they did,” Rittenberg said. “How do you fix that from a defensive standpoint?”
New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is tasked with answering that question. He comes from the Baltimore Ravens, a franchise that is known for having physical defenses. If he instills a high level of mental and physical toughness in his players at Michigan, it’ll be a start.
Wisconsin Will Be Huge Test For Michigan’s Defense
Michigan heads back to Camp Randall Stadium Oct. 2, where the Wolverines haven’t won since 2001. In many ways, the contest will be a measuring stick for a new-look Michigan team.
While the Washington game in week two is being talked about as a tone-setter for the entire season — and rightfully so — this will be the game that determines the trajectory of Michigan’s Big Ten season.
Wisconsin’s run game wasn’t up to its own standards last season, when it averaged just 96.1 yards per game on the ground (seventh in the Big Ten). But make no mistake — head coach Paul Chryst is adamant about running the ball, even though redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz appears on his way to being a game-changer.
Four starters return for the Badgers on the offensive line, and so does freshman running back Jalen Berger, who racked up a team-high 301 rushing yards in four games last season.
“If there’s somebody that has the fan base really excited, it’s what Jalen Berger can potentially do,” Wisconsin radio play-by-play voice Matt Lepay said on the ‘In The Trenches’ podcast this week. “He’s a coach’s dream. He says next to nothing in interviews, but he loves the game. Paul Chryst has talked to us about that multiple times, that the work ethic is outstanding.
“He’s somebody that you would think would be in line to get more than 15 carries per game.”
That’ll be a stiff challenge for a front seven implementing a new scheme.
It’ll also be tough sledding for Michigan’s offense against a 3-4 Badger defense led by coordinator Jim Leonhard, who declined a job offer from the Green Bay Packers this offseason. The unit is known for confusing opposing offenses, disguising pressure and playing an aggressive brand. Despite having a mediocre season overall, the Badgers’ defense finished fifth nationally in total defense and fifth in scoring defense last year.
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